Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The foundations of fascism

Amy at the Biscuit Report had a question for me last month regarding my discussion of the reports of Halliburton concentration camps:
I know you write that what we are seeing today is different in many respects from the 'original' fascisms. But wouldn't that always be the case, since it's a different time and place? What is the difference, particularly, between 'incipient fascism' and 'laying the groundwork for the eventual outbreak of genuine fascism"?

When you say "pseudo-fascism", it makes it sound like whatever is going on, since not fascism, is not actually that dangerous. Do you do this just to calm the tin-hatters? Because everything else you say makes things sound pretty darn dangerous. It looks like fascism and quacks like fascism. Sure, it's not just like the fascism we all know and love from our history books. But it's not an entirely other species. It's not like the difference between a king snake and a coral snake, the difference between harmless and deadly.

These are not just reasonable but perceptive questions. I understand that it seems like I'm drawing a fine distinction between the discrete conservative movement's pseudo-fascism and the real article. But the distinction between them is both significant and fairly clear, if framed the right way.

If you'll recall, I explained way back when that genuine fascism does exist in America, and has for generations. It continues to exist today in the form of unreconstructed fascists and neo-Nazis, as well as proto-fascists like those found in the Patriot movement.

There has always been, and continues to be, a significant existential difference between these factions and mainstream conservatism, even despite the impetus created by the metastasis of the conservative movement.

We know that the conservative movement is not genuinely fascist because it has not seized power during a crisis of democracy. There are no loyalty oaths, no official suppression of free speech (at least not overtly), no purges, no mass arrests, no street or vigilante violence against political opponents.

Those are the kinds of things we could expect if the neo-Nazis or the Patriots actually ever seized power. Or, more to the point perhaps, if the conservative movement metastasized into a genuinely fascist entity.

When these kinds of things start occurring, then I think we can say we're no longer looking at pseudo-fascism but the real thing. Until then, it's best to recognize that the democratic republic remains more or less (under Bush, decidedly less) intact.

This is consistent with what I observed about Robert O. Paxton's model of the rise of fascism, which holds that fascism usually arises under the auspices of an overtly authoritarian political party that comes to power through a coalition with ruling elites. This would be represented here by the National Socialist Movement becoming a significant third party that gains corporate backing, something that fortunately does not seem even remotely likely at this juncture.

But as I pointed out at the time, there's another possibility: that an existing political party could become increasingly fascistic over time, particularly through its associations with right-wing extremists, and eventually subsumed by them as their worldview came to dominate the party agenda. It is this danger, as the conservative movement metastasizes into a pathological political religion, that we have to confront in the 21st century.

In order to confront it, we have to confront how it's happening: namely, the way that ordinary conservatives are induced to embrace essentially fascistic ideas and ways of thinking, often not out of any genuine conservatism but out of a reflexive anti-liberalism, something that has traditionally more characterized fascists than conservatives. Traditionally.

Nowadays, we can turn to the Internets and find, routinely, supposedly mainstream conservatives holding forth in a fashion indistinguishable from genuine fascists, as Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money did in digging up this gem:
The problem with our world today is cultural rot. Cultural rot can be detected by symptoms such as terrorism, oppression, overpopulation, ineffective government, poor economic models, and extremism. Conversely, cultural rot can also be identified by an obsessive media, a naval gazing pop culture movement, isolationists, pervasive liberalism, ignorance of history, and a society becoming disconnected from its past.

Anyone familiar with Umberto Eco's essay on "Ur-Fascism" recognizes this theme:
Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering's fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play ("When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun") to the frequent use of such expressions as "degenerate intellectuals," "eggheads," "effete snobs," and "universities are nests of reds." The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

Likewise, Paxton observes as one of the seven "mobilizing passions" of fascism the following:
-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.

So it's no great surprise that the blogger's solution to this "rot" is abundantly familiar:
Cultural rot is encroaching on everything we hold dear, here and abroad. Our dilemma in America is how to marginalize those* who would seek to destroy or change our culture. The only answer to this is a return to the values that made our nation great.

Not only does Eco identify "the cult of tradition" as the first trait and most readily identifiable trait of fascism, but so in a way does Oxford scholar Roger Griffin, who contends that the myth of "palingenesis" -- the Phoenix-like rebirth of the nation, in this case from the destructive fires of liberalism -- is one of the real defining traits of fascism.

The centrality of palingenesis is described in Wikipedia entry on neofascism and religion:
Scholar Roger Griffin argues that "fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the 'people' into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence" (Griffin, Nature of Fascism, p. xi).

This concept of fascism as palingenesis is complementary with the idea of James Rhodes that fascism is a form of apocalyptic millenarianism; and with the work of Emilio Gentile where fascism is seen as a form of "political religion."

The blogger in question, of course, was genuinely taken aback at having been identified as expressing fascist ideas (and a rather predictable mangling of the meaning of the term followed). After all, wasn't what he was saying simply something that's a common part of our discourse, namely, a defense of traditional values?

Well, yes and no. After all, what are we to logically conclude from his argument? How, exactly, are we to confront this decay and degradation, borne on the wings of "an obsessive media, a naval gazing pop culture movement, isolationists, pervasive liberalism"? How do we "stand up for traditional values"?

The logical answer, though he only nods in its direction: We "marginalize" the opposition. Dispose of them. Eliminate them.

Discussions like this are fairly common, and have been for awhile, but they don't occur merely in a vacuum. So the natural corrolary to them is the rise of eliminationist rhetoric, which has the virtue, for movement conservatives, of serving a useful ideological function as well.

A great deal of the eliminationist talk that's circulating in the body politic is not making its way into print because it tends to be talk on the streets, but any liberal living in a "red state" zone has heard it, often crudely and bluntly expressed. You can find it in cruder corners of the Web, too, including the comments at Little Green Footballs or Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler (where it's also commonly featured among the editors as well). Probably the best iteration of this fairly crude talk was this essay by an obscure right-wing ranter, who nonetheless penned what could well be the eliminationist's credo:
Instead of sitting around, incessantly sniping at President Bush and the US Military, sipping "liberal coward broth", hating America and Conservatives, the wacko liberal poison Left-Wing Nuts — and the rest of The Enemy Within™ — should be rounded-up and put into "re-education camps" and forced to watch 24 hour, non-stop TV news footage of 9-11, Sodomy Insane's rape/torture/murder rooms and the unearthing of Iraqi mass graves. Those hard-core Lefty wacko filth who can't be converted, should be summarily tried and locked away for life; no chance of parole. They're a waste of oxygen and a "clear and present danger" to America, as is the murderous, degenerate cult of Islam. Free and unfettered speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment, but actively working and trying to destroy this Nation, in a time of war, when our very lives are in peril, is a treasonous and seditious offense, and should be treated as such, and punished by death. The much-maligned Patriot Act provides for that very situation, and should be implemented post haste. All verminous, hate-America, liberal-socialist-commie filth should be contained and selectively eliminated.

Hits all the high spots, doesn't it?

The more that formerly mainstream conservatives come to think like this, the closer we get to a genuinely fascist phenomenon. And unfortunately -- under the inducement of a million little Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters and Bill O'Reilly's out there, urging them on -- I do think their numbers are growing.

These transmitters not only form a bridge for extremism and mainstream conservatism, they also create, quite intentionally, an increasingly polarized environment in which extremist ideologies are likely to flourish and find an audience among mainstream conservatives. In some cases, the transmitters are people with extremist backgrounds who largely present themselves clothed in "normal" rhetoric, but who nonetheless increasingly employ the tactics of right-wing extremists in the pursuit of an agenda that is extremist.

Pastor Dan at Street Prophets observed one of these in his Pennsylvania backyard, in the person of Michael Marcavage of Repent America, a religious-right organization that is stirring up trouble in Dover, site of a long-running dispute over "intelligent design" curriculum, to stir up more trouble in the community.

Many had believed the recent school board election, in which all the ID proponents were thrown out emphatically, had settled the issue once and for all. But the Repent America folks are back pounding the pavement, trying to stir up the community's religious faction, mostly by exacerbating the existing animosities.

So Pastor Dan notes:
But they share some of the same tactics used by white supremacists: come into a divided community from the outside -- particularly after a hard-fought controversy -- and use the opportunity to push a confrontational message. Wherever possible, play the victim to make the authorities out to be repressing the subversive truth you are pushing. I'd try to explain the message here, but it's just not worth it. The tactics are the message. The hope in using such strategies, I suppose, is to attract such followers as you can. But more important, the purpose is to upset and intimidate the community. The charitable view of this kind of activity is that it's simply an aggressive form of advocacy. The less-charitable explanation is that it's plain thuggishness. I don't incline to the charitable view.

I've discussed Marcavage previously, and noted that the beliefs he preaches regarding homosexuality are not particularly distinguishable from that of Christian Identity preacher Pete Peters -- namely, he believes gays should be put to death. Pam Spaulding has been tracking Marcavage for some time now.

And the tactics he's using in Dover, you'll note, are right out of the NSM's playbook in places like Toledo, Olympia, and Orlando: Find a community undergoing upheaval, exploit it for your own purposes, grab some headlines, and boost your recruitment. In the process, the converts almost always began as mainstream conservatives.

This, rather than the specter of concentration camps or any other tweak of our paranoia buttons, is where the danger to the republic actually lies: less with the government than with our neighbors, its willing executioners in waiting. The real danger is the spread of extremist right-wing thinking, especially as it increasingly disguises itself as mainstream.

There are, of course, an abundance of warning signs that authorities in power are becoming increasingly authoritarian. Of recent note, for instance, is the story of a Boise man hassled by Homeland Security agents for the bumper stickers on his truck.

But I'm much more concerned by the rise of movements like the Minutemen, who represent a real embrace of right-wing extremism by the mainstream. Even more disturbing is the realization that their vigilantism is a clear indicator of their potential as a font of right-wing street violence.

Make no mistake, Amy, that what we're talking about is profoundly dangerous and innately harmful. Part of the reason I insist on using the term "fascism" -- flawed as it is, thanks to the degeneration of the term under its constant misuse -- to describe what we're seeing is that it emphasizes the very real threat that it poses.

The correct analogy regarding pseudo-fascism and real fascism, I think, is not to compare them to a king snake and a cobra, but rather to a cobra in different states: before it strikes, as it still slithers into range and raises its cowl; and after it has bitten. In the former, we can keep it at bay and even corral it. In the latter, we're calling the ambulance.

As long as the gathering fascist trends are blunted and confronted, then the danger of pseudo-fascism blossoming full form into genuine fascism remains controllable. But if we fall down on the job, and the American body politic under the influence of the extremist right gives rise to real fascism, and we do start seeing loyalty oaths and official suppression of free speech, mass arrests and street violence ... well, by then, I'm afraid, it will be too late.

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