Saturday, May 22, 2004

Jingoes and the fascist impulse

Americans labor under the delusion that fascism "can't happen here" because of the nation's history as an open, democratic society.

This is a peculiar blind spot, because in fact fascism is only possible as an outgrowth -- a metastasis, if you will -- of democracy. Historically, fascism has only taken root in democracies when they stumble. It seems not to occur to Americans that if their democracy stumbles, the dark face of fascism awaits to take its place.

It is also peculiar because Americans, in reality, are all too familiar with the fascist impulse in their midst. Perhaps it is this familiarity that disguises the reality of what it is. But as Robert O. Paxton observes in his superb new text, The Anatomy of Fascism:
It may be that the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some former Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans in 1867 by the Radical Reconstructionists, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in the eyes of the Klan's founders, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. Bu adopting a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as by their techiques of intimidation and their conviction that violence was justified in the cause of their group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe. It should not be surprising, after all, that the most precocious democracies -- the United States and France -- should have generated precocious backlashes against democracy.

Earlier, Paxton cites a passage from Alexis de Tocqueville as a "glimmer of premonition" about the darker impulses that shadowed democratic societies, particularly "the majority's power to impose conformity by social pressure, in the absence of an independent social elite":
The kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that had preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

Paxton suggests that it finally took a name in the 20th century: fascism. He sums up neatly the essence of fascism as a political force: "dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm."

And the notion that this force is relegated to distant history is belied by the reality that American democracy -- particularly under the Bush regime -- is increasingly showing signs of dysfunction, amid increasing intolerance for the Left, as well as a certain enthusiasm for silencing dissent.

I've discussed at length elsewhere the signs of incipient fascism in the American body politic. Now, as we reach a boiling point where the war in Iraq is turning into one of history's great quagmires and the likely disempowerment of the ruling conservatives looms larger, the potential for significant manifestations of the fascist impulse becomes greater.

The chief form of this is the desire to suppress all dissent, specifically under the guise of a 21st-century version of the Dolchstosslegende, as liberals and dissenters are increasingly depicted as "stabbing in the back" our soldiers and, by extension, the national interest.

It's important to understand as well that fascist dictatorships are top-down in hierarchy but rely on substantive popular support. They are dictatorships which are carried out not only under threat of state punishment, but with the open embrace of average citizens, and the full participation of many enthusiasts (who are all, of course, deeply persuaded of their own civic virtue).

So the kind of suppression that indicates a fascist impulse appears not only from the top -- with administration officials impugning the patriotism of their critics, and conservative talk-show hosts and pundits ranting at length about the treason of liberals. It also appears in local libraries, city councils, local police forces. And, of course, school districts.

Which brings us to the case of Bill Nevins.

Nevins is an English teacher at Rio Rancho High School in New Mexico, which is the largest high school in the state and a model of state-of-the-art education. He also taught a poetry class, and encouraged students in pursuing "poetry slams" that gave them full freedom of expression. But because students used the forum to attack Bush and the Iraq invasion, he was not only fired, he was held a virtual prisoner by an apparently vindictive principal. The students' poetry club was also terminated.

As Bill Hill recently explained in the Daytona Beach News-Herald:
The "Slam Team" was a group of teenage poets who asked Nevins to serve as faculty adviser to their club. The teens, mostly shy youngsters, were taught to read their poetry aloud and before audiences. Rio Rancho High School gave the Slam Team access to the school's closed-circuit television once a week and the poets thrived.

In March 2003, a teenage girl named Courtney presented one of her poems before an audience at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Albuquerque, then read the poem live on the school's closed-circuit television channel.

A school military liaison and the high school principal accused the girl of being "un-American" because she criticized the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's failure to give substance to its "No child left behind" education policy.

The girl's mother, also a teacher, was ordered by the principal to destroy the child's poetry. The mother refused and may lose her job.

Nevins had meanwhile been offered a job at another high school -- and the principal, a fellow named Gary Tripp, refused to process a simple transfer form that would allow him to move on.

An Associated Press version of the story provides more details:
Nevins contends problems began last December when an assistant principal visited his class twice during so-called poetry slams, or performances when students read their poetry aloud.

In February, Nevins alleged Passell told him his classes were not meeting educational standards and that the students "were showing a lack of respect."

When one of Nevins' students read a poem over the school's closed-circuit television system later that month, the school's military liaison complained to Tripp about the poem's content, calling it "disrespectful speech," the lawsuit said.

"This is the land of the free," a bit of the poem goes. "You drive by a car whose bumper screams God bless America. Well, you can scratch out the B and make it Godless because God left this country a long time ago... ."

Some had alleged the poem contained obscenities and inferences inciting violence, and school officials launched an investigation, the lawsuit said.

As it turned out, none of the poems in fact were obscene or violent.

According to another report, the school administration's suppressive actions were not relegated merely to the poets, but extended to anyone who questioned Tripp's moves:
In March, 2003, Nevins was suddenly suspended from teaching and from coaching the Write Club/Poetry Team, which then disbanded. Public readings of student poetry were banned by the RRHS administration. A multicultural poetry assembly set for April was cancelled. Student protests against Nevins' removal were silenced by the school administration and at least one student who refused to stop speaking out was encouraged to drop out of RRHS.

That wasn't the end of Tripp's power trip. As one account describes:
The lawsuit also claims that at a school event in May the school’s military liaison read a poem written by a solider that instructed those expressing their desire for peace to "shut their faces." At the same event, Tripp hoisted a U.S. battleship flag from Afghanistan.

An account in Green Left Weekly notes that Rio Rancho High School is (as the Microsoft piece above suggested) perhaps the face of education's future, with a substantive role played by major corporations:
Why would a US public school district behave in this way? Rio Rancho School District and its high schools, RRHS (the largest in New Mexico) and Independence High, were established in the late 1990s with major funding from Intel Corporation, the largest employer in Rio Rancho, a relatively new city located north-west of Albuquerque. Reports in the Albuquerque Journal and Tribune cited RRHS principal Tripp as stating that he intends to ask Intel Corp and the Bank of America for guidance in addressing what he identifies as "racial conflict" problems at RRHS.

It's not unreasonable to expect students to observe certain basic standards of behavior, but educators like Gary Tripp are well beyond that line. Tripp is in the business of suppressing opposition to an increasingly narrow viewpoint -- namely, one that identifies the Bush agenda with true Americanism, all dissent as treason, and that substitutes blind jingoism for patriotism.

The problem with this impulse to control students' minds, and to stigmatize dissent, goes well beyond the simple question of what level of control corporate funders of education may be seeking. It goes to the root of something much deeper and darker, but very likely related.

[Thanks to the Buzzerman for bringing the Nevins case to my attention.]

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