The GOP plays 'identity politics'|
Saturday, September 13, 2003
The next time a conservative True Believer tries to tell you that the Southern Strategy is a thing of the past, and the GOP is purging itself of its ties to neo-Confederates and their ilk, point them to this story:
Republican poll seeks to identify Rebel flag supporters
- There is no issue on the ballot for November about the state flag, which has the much-debated Confederate emblem in one corner. But Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck spoke in favor of the Confederate symbol this summer during the Neshoba County fair. Her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Blackmon, is seeking to be the first black person elected to statewide office since Reconstruction.
Blackmon's candidacy, many political experts say, is expected to generate a big turnout among black voters, which could also benefit Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. He is challenged by Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee.
The jockeying over the state flag comes two years after state voters overwhelmingly decided to keep the Confederate symbol. A local non-binding election on a similar issue occurred last year when Harrison County voters also overwhelming said to keep the Rebel flag flying at a beach display.
Jim Herring, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, said the telephone question about the state flag is being asked as part of a voter-identification effort.
"It is not unusual to ask people how they voted on various issues," Herring said. "That's pretty much it. That's what you call voter-identification calls."
Some of the people polled say the questions abruptly ended when they indicated support for changing the state flag. Rickey Cole, who heads the Mississippi Democratic Party, said the effort does not surprise him.
"I think the Republicans have looked at the numbers from the flag vote in 2001," Cole said. "They are very interested in trying to recoup their constituency that turned out for that vote that hasn't been turning out for other votes."
Not that this will really help persuade a True Believer. They are always immune to facts. But it might shut him up for a little while, at least until the next Limbaugh show gives him a fresh set of talking points.
Likewise, I will be awaiting Mickey Kaus's and Glenn Reynolds' stern denunciations of this brand of "identity politics" with unbated breath.
[A tip o' the Hatlo Hat to Seeing the Forest.]
The 'F' word hits the big time
The New York Times weighs in on the issue of fascism:
- The Latest Obscenity Has Seven Letters
Meanwhile, in what many people see as a particularly far-fetched usage, some on the left are dusting off the political vocabulary of the 1920's and 30's to describe policies of the Bush administration that they find antidemocratic: aggressive unilateralism in foreign affairs, the doctrine of pre-emptive force and what they perceive as the abridgment of civil liberties in the war on terror. Just this week, protesters were flashing signs emblazoned with the word fascist during Attorney General John Ashcroft's speeches in favor of the antiterrorism laws.
"Whenever people start locking up enemies because of national security without much legal care, you are coming close," said Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and the author of a forthcoming book called "Fascism in Action," a comparative study that tries to distill the essence of fascism.
Of course, as I've explored here at length, the comparisons to fascism with the current conditions extend well beyond the matter or the treatment of civil rights vis a vis national security. However, the piece pretty fairly explores some of these other traits -- "the rejection of both liberalism and socialism; the primacy of the nation over the rights of the individual; the demonization of the nation's enemies; the elimination of dissent and the creation of a single-party state; the dominant role of a charismatic leader; the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness" -- though it neglects to point out their disturbing similarities to the agenda of the American conservative movement. I guess this is what some people consider "preposterous."
In any event, the piece makes an important point:
- Fascism, scholars agree, is by definition a modern mass movement. Old-fashioned monarchies, as well as military juntas, generally count on passive subjects, while the innovation of Fascism was mobilizing the masses, in punitive raids and grand public rallies, in the cause of a kind of ultranationalism.
"Saddam Hussein's regime is an evil phenomenon, but fascism is the product of democracies that have gone wrong, that had working constitutional systems which they gave up voluntarily," Mr. Paxton said.
For this reason, Mr. Paxton and most experts on European Fascism consider it inappropriate to apply the term to societies of the Middle East that have little experience of democracy and whose modes of governance spring from a different matrix. In the view of Mr. Paxton, Mr. Hussein's regime has more in common with many third-world dictatorships that are militaristic and nationalistic but that rule more through brute force than through mass mobilization.
Mr. Berman and Mr. Hitchens also applied the term fascist to militant Islam because it seems to have an aggressive, fanatical hatred of the West, an apocalyptic vision of violent conflict and a cult of death that represents a danger that the world's democracies would be mistaken to ignore. They describe Sept. 11 as a historic moment like that in 1938 when Hitler's threats against Czechoslovakia and the peace negotiations in Munich divided Europe between the desire to appease or confront Hitler.
This interpretation does not sit well with most experts on Islam. "Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism," said Roxanne Euben, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. "Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism. Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while Fascism in Europe was a secular movement. So if it's not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it's not really like what we think of as Fascist, why use these terms?"
The next time you hear someone refer to "Islamofascism," you might want to point this out to them.
In general, I was pleased to see the issue begin to warrant such high-profile consideration. I was a little disappointed to see Roger Griffin's work receive such short shrift (he goes utterly unmentioned) but I understand the restraints imposed by newspaper articles. She does mention Emilio Gentile, who springboards to an extent from Griffin's work, who provides this definition, which seems relatively complete:
- "A mass movement, that combines different classes but is prevalently of the middle classes, which sees itself as having a mission of national regeneration, is in a state of war with its adversaries and seeks a monopoly of power by using terror, parliamentary tactics and compromise to create a new regime, destroying democracy."
The only thing missing from this is the core element that Paxton identifies: The claim to represent the "true" national identity.
[Thanks to Paul de Armond for the heads-up.]
A question of character
Friday, September 12, 2003
I see that the matter of the Bush administration's crass exploitation of the Sept. 11 tragedy for political gain is starting gain some steam, as Paul Krugman observes in his latest column, "Exploiting the Atrocity":
- In the first months after 9/11, the administration's ruthless exploitation of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity. The natural instinct of the nation to rally around its leader in times of crisis had pushed Mr. Bush into the polling stratosphere, and his re-election seemed secure. He could have governed as the uniter he claimed to be, and would probably still be wildly popular.
But Mr. Bush's advisers were greedy; they saw 9/11 as an opportunity to get everything they wanted, from another round of tax cuts, to a major weakening of the Clean Air Act, to an invasion of Iraq. And so they wrapped as much as they could in the flag.
Now it has all gone wrong. The deficit is about to go above half a trillion dollars, the economy is still losing jobs, the triumph in Iraq has turned to dust and ashes, and Mr. Bush's poll numbers are at or below their pre-9/11 levels.
Apropos of these observations, I thought it might be time to resurrect a blast from the past. This is a piece I wrote for the MSNBC.com Opinions page that was published June 27, 2002, and was up on the site for about a month. It since has vanished into the ether, so here it is:
Hitting the Trifecta
W's favorite joke about the Sept. 11 attacks has it all: It's in bad taste. It's a lie. And it shows how readily the administration uses national tragedy for political cover
By David Neiwert
Professional stand-up comedians know that Sept. 11 jokes are radioactive. Not even the bravest have tried to turn the deaths of some 3,000 people into a laughing matter.
But President Bush has forged ahead anyway. Bush has now been telling the same, spectacularly tasteless joke to a variety of mostly Republican audiences as part of his stock stump speech for the better part of four months now. This is its basic telling:
- "You know, when I was running for President, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream weíd get the trifecta."
According to the transcripts, this joke usually elicits laughter from the mostly GOP crowds to whom Bush tells it.
So far, Bush has told the joke on the record at least 14 times. It originated, evidently, as an anecdote he told to business leaders Oct. 3, 2001, when he explained his three-part reasoning for going into deficit spending.
He appears to have added the "trifecta" joke for the first time before a group of visiting Republicans at the White House on Nov. 9, 2001. He pulled it out again for a huddle with congressional GOP leaders on Feb. 1, 2002. Since then, Bush apparently decided to make it part of his stump speech, beginning with a GOP luncheon on Feb. 27. The tellings have come more regularly, and have been largely at GOP fund-raising functions. The most recent appearance of the joke was June 14, at a reception for Texas Gov. Rick Perryís re-election campaign in Houston.
Bush appears to give "trifecta" a sort of rueful, ironic meaning. But therein also lies the morbid edge to the joke: After all, George W. Bush -- who in the weeks preceding the tragedy faced mounting questions about his ability as well as his legitimacy, all of which vanished afterward -- is possibly the only American for whom Sept. 11 was indeed a stroke of incredible good fortune.
However, the real problem with the joke is that it is a complete falsehood.
Bush never told any audience, or any reporter, in Chicago that he could foresee three conditions under which deficit spending might be necessary. In fact, throughout the entire campaign, Bush had been insistent that budget surpluses would continue, and only once does he appear to have told any public audience at any time that deficit spending might become necessary -- a Sept. 22, 2000 interview with Paula Zahn, in which he defended his tax cuts even in the face of a "short-term deficit." The only other times that Bush ever seems to have brought up the subject of deficit spending were those when he accused Al Gore of planning to resume the practice.
When reporters have sought the original remarks, the White House press office has been unable to come up with any evidence that Bush ever made the remarks that he claims. Jonathan Chait first pointed this out in the New Republic, and a number of other journalists have gone looking.
This has made for some uncomfortable moments for the administrationís defenders. Tim Russert, on Sundayís Meet the Press, tried to confront OMB chief Mitch Daniels about it:
- Russert: Now, we have checked everywhere and weíve even called the White House as to when the president said that when he was campaigning in Chicago, and it didnít happen. The closest he came was he was asked, "Would you give up part of your tax cut in order to ensure a balanced budget?" And he said, "No." But no one ever talked about a war, a recession and an emergency, the trifecta. Ö [It] was not talked about in the campaign by the president, and the White House keeps saying, "Oh, yes, he made that caveat." No one can find it.
Daniels demurred, declaring, "Iím not the White House librarian," but claimed that he had often heard Bush make those three reservations.
Bush's story, moreover, is fundamentally false as a purely chronological matter: Bush was already facing the certainty of deficit spending at the end of the summer of 2001, well before the attacks of Sept. 11. Some $4 trillion worth of budget surplus vanished over the spring and summer that year, and budget experts sounded the alarm about looming deficits then. The Congressional Budget Office warned Bush on Aug. 29 that Social Security funds would be needed to balance the books, forcing him to abandon a campaign promise not to use the retirement fund for other government spending.
Indeed, that is just what Bush proceeded to do in his actual budget, presented in January. According to the CBO, Bushís budget plan would drain every dollar of the $527 billion surplus from the Social Security Trust Fund for the next two fiscal years even while creating a deficit. It would continue to raid the fund for varying amounts each year through 2012. Even with the fundís help, the federal budget is expected to be in deficits through at least 2005.
Most economists peg the source of these nagging deficits on Bush's tax-cut plan, the deepest portions of which loom ahead. The administration sternly denies this. Yet itís clear that while Sept. 11 may have deepened and broadened the budget-deficit problem, the administration was faced with chronic budget deficits no matter what.
And that gets to the heart of the "trifecta" joke, whose entire purpose clearly is to blame the deficit on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Thus it lets Bush escape any serious questions about either his failure to balance the budget or, particularly, his campaign pledge to use the Social Security Trust Fund to pay down the national debt. The national tragedy gave him unparalleled political cover for his administration's failures -- and Bush, to no one's surprise, has displayed no hesitation whatsoever about using it. Indeed, it has become his favorite joke.
Never mind that it is perhaps the most tasteless and insensitive joke in the annals of the presidency, nor that it is ultimately a falsehood. What's really noteworthy about Tale of the Trifecta is that the in-your-face political opportunism it represents is not out of the ordinary for this administration.
Since Sept. 11, Bush and his Republican colleagues have at every turn used the threat of terrorist attacks as cover for the administrationís difficulties:
- -- Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked critics of his anti-terrorism measures in December by telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that opponents of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to Americaís enemies."
-- When Democratic leaders in the Senate -- particularly Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- questioned Bushís handling of the war on terrorism, they drew accusations of "aiding and abetting the enemy" and dark suggestions about the critics' patriotism.
-- When questions emerged in early May about what Bush and his advisers knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11 and Democrats began pushing for an independent investigation, a series of warnings of yet more imminent terrorist attacks were issued from the administration. The criticism largely subsided.
-- Four days after proposing, amid skepticism, a Cabinet-level Homeland Security department, the administration announced the arrest of a man suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda agents to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in an American city. As it happens, the actual arrest had occurred a month before.
There have been other, less clear incidents suggesting a willingness to use Sept. 11 and its aftermath as not just a political shield, but a weapon. This probably should not be a surprise: after all, one need only recall Karl Roveís instructions to the Republican National Committee last January to make the war on terrorism a political issue.
Perhaps because Republicans have been so open about turning Sept. 11 to their political advantage, they have created an environment in which a joke such as Bushís "trifecta" quip seems nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, Bush keeps telling the joke even after itís been pointed out, on national television, that heís telling a falsehood.
In the face of that kind of chutzpah, no one inside the Beltway seems capable of pointing out that the emperorís joke has no clothes. Given the GOPís propensity for questioning others' patriotism, it probably isnít politically smart for anyone working in the capital to point out that Bush might have seen a national disaster as a political jackpot. Problem is, itís the president himself who insists on making that suggestion.
A note: Shortly after this column appeared, Bush dropped the joke from his stump speeches at the behest of "senior advisers," according to the Chicago Tribune's Jeff Zelezny, who reported on July 14:
- So in recent days, some senior advisers have asked Bush to eliminate the Chicago line from the stump speech. They hope the move will quash the talk among Washington critics that Bush may be telling tall tales. One White House adviser said privately that the administration wants the label of exaggerated storyteller to remain precisely where it was in the last campaign ó with Gore.
There is no small irony in this, since Al Gore, in fact, had told reporters during the campaign that he might consider deficit spending under those three conditions. [See Dana Milbank's July 2, 2002, report, "A Sound Bite So Good, the President Wishes He Had Said It," buried on Page A13.] Bush had in effect lifted the line from Gore, and then lied about it. Yet according to this same press corps, it was Al Gore, not George Bush, who had a "problem with the truth."
'Nothing is out of bounds for them'
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Atrios the other day posted on the news that in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, "the burning ruins of the World Trade Center spewed toxic gases 'like a chemical factory' attacks despite government assurances the air was safe," and that these gases included toxic metals, acids and organics:
- Last month, an internal report by Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Nikki Tinsley said the White House pressured the agency to make premature statements that the air was safe to breathe.
The EPA issued an air quality statement on Sept. 18, 2001, even though it "did not have sufficient data and analyzes to make the statement," the report said.
The White House "convinced the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones," Tinsley said. Among the information withheld was the potential health hazards of breathing asbestos, lead, concrete and pulverized glass, the report said.
I opined in Atrios' comments that the GOP Convention in New York next year could turn very ugly:
- There are going to be a bunch of pissed-off New Yorkers with serious health problems by the time Bush arrives.
And this is a guy who doesn't even have the balls to deal with a bunch of pissed-off latte-lapping Seattleites. New Yorkers are in another universe.
This morning, Eric Boehlert more or less confirms this in Salon:
- Ground zero, 2004: Next year's Republican Convention will convene blocks from the WTC site, just days before the anniversary of 9/11. The reception from New Yorkers, though, might not be what the White House has in mind.
Boehlert details reasons for this well beyond the lying and coverup about the risk citizens faced by breathing that air -- particularly, the Bush administration's abysmal failures to come through with the levels of aid the city needs to recover. Like most American cities, New York is hurting economically anyway -- but 9/11 has just devastated it, and the Republicans, knowing Bush will do no better than 20 percent in the city again, are making a Rovean political calculation with serious human costs.
Of course, 9/11 has been nothing but an exploitative political springboard for Bush's agenda anyway. The man's manifest unfitness for the office could not be more self-evident than in this instance.
Boehlert's concluding paragraph sums it up:
- For Bill Harvey, a 9/11 widower whose wife of one month died on the 93rd floor of 1 World Trade Center, it's the potential spectacle he fears. "I'm going to be really upset if they try to politicize this thing," he says. But the Bush administration's use of 9/11 as justification for a war with Iraq has left him preparing for the worst. "Some events I think should transcend politics. And 9/11 is one of them. I'm skeptical of this administration, though, because it has shown that nothing is out of bounds for them."
I can't help but wonder how Team Rove will spin their way out of this one.
This smear must stop
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
It's time for Glenn Reynolds to explain himself.
Today, the renowned Instapundit continues to repeat the charge that MEChA is a racist organization by comparing it to Jim Crow:
- But the fight against racial prejudice at the highest levels of the Democratic Party in California is not without its setbacks, as Cruz Bustamante is still refusing to renounce MEChA. Well, we didn't end Jim Crow overnight, either.
First: Does Reynolds really believe MEChA is comparable to Jim Crow? Atrios pretty cleanly dispenses with that notion.
Second: The underlying logic of Reynolds' argument is that the "identity politics" of MEChA (and by extension, that of any mainstream civil-rights organization that vigorously attacks the tenets of white supremacism) is identical in nature to the institutionalized white supremacy of Jim Crow and its attendant ills: segregation, lynching, endemic discrimination.
In doing so, Reynolds not only grotesquely smears mildly militant minority-rights groups, he minimizes the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Suggesting that the systemic atrocities committed against blacks in the first half of the American twentieth century are in any way comparable to even the most distorted reading of Mechista rhetoric or activism is exactly the same kind of despicable historical revisionism deployed by those who compare the Holocaust to various lesser atrocities. I would even place the superficial comparisons of George Bush to Hitler, so despised by Reynolds, in this category as well (though I would not, for reasons discussed earlier, include discussions of the "Bush family-Nazi connection" in the same).
Reynolds, as I said, has some explaining to do. This kind of minimizing the historical realities of the racist South is precisely what Trent Lott was doing when he landed in the national doghouse. Of course, Reynolds likes to compare Bustamante to Lott -- as though MEChA were comparable in either rhetoric or agenda to the Council of Conservative Citizens, or the "Aztlan" myth to the reality of segregation. Reynolds, of all people, should know better.
If, as seems to be the case, Reynolds believes that MEChA comprises "fascist hatemongers" and is a racist organization, he especially needs to explain just why this is so.
I say this as someone who has over the years examined several hundred various organizations -- right, left, and anywhere else -- to try to ascertain whether or not they are genuinely racist in nature. The majority of these have been right-wing "Patriot" groups, many of whom lurk on the fringes of the racist right, and many others who wander fully into that territory. Sorting out just who is racist and who is not entails applying appropriate, considered and accurate criteria, and applying them with both care and discretion.
I know that Glenn Reynolds has partaken of this work as well. He was, I believe, one of the original subscribers to the Militia Watchdog listserv when Mark Pitcavage started it up (in 1996, I think) and has over the years been a valuable contributor to its work -- which is primarily in trying to track various forms of right-wing extremism. So this turn of events has been, I must say, personally quite baffling.
Let me emphasize again: Accusing anyone, particularly a national civil-rights organization that enjoys broad mainstream participation, of being racist is an extremely serious charge. Its ramifications are widespread and can be devastating for any group on whom the label is placed. Misusing it cheaply, especially for scoring easy political points, is beneath contempt.
If Reynolds is going to accuse MEChA of racism, and continue to demand that Cruz Bustamante "denounce" them, he needs to explain to his readers:
- --What are his criteria for defining a racist organization?
--What are the behavioral traits of racist organizations -- historically and otherwise?
-- How does MEChA fit those criteria?
As I have explained at length, it is clear by the criteria used not only by myself but most other monitors of hate groups that MEChA is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a genuinely racist organization. Some of its early rhetoric is indeed annoyingly militant, and is at best shrill if not divisive by today's standards. Reynolds put it this way a few posts ago: "It's not 1964 anymore." Of course not -- but then, the rhetoric that seems to have their shorts in a bunch dates back to 1969.
Guess those five years are all the difference needed for conservatives to smear minority advocates as "racists."
Reynolds, I must note, defends himself by saying he has linked to opposing viewpoints. But all of these links have come with disparaging and dismissive language -- which would be fine, except that Reynolds provides no counter-arguments to the points that they raise. It's all with a sort of "oh my God can you believe these PC morons" rolling of the eyes. Logic and reason -- let alone basic fairness and decency -- sad to say, have been entirely lacking from his handling of this subject.
The Brown Peril: Origins
Robert Cruickshank, a fellow Seattleite, writes in about the Mecha controversy:
- It is primarily a right-wing attempt to smear a Latino candidate by raising a meme that is very closely related to the "They Keep Coming" tradition of GOP attacks on Latinos for political gain by insinuating that Latinos are mounting some kind of attack on Californians' pocketbooks, racial purity, and borders. (By the way, American Patrol mounted a similar attack on LA mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001.
Historically, though, the meme goes back even further than 1996, to at least 1993, when I first heard (and ignorantly repeated) the accusation while a freshman at an Orange County, CA high school. Our school, which was roughly 40% Latino at the time, had a MEChA club on campus that was quite popular. I recall discussions with other conservative friends and they explained to me that MEChA was racist, because it excluded whites and sought the return of the lands lost in 1848 to Mexico. Where these friends picked up the meme is a mystery to me, but I can only assume that if it was already formed in 1993, its origins must have been no less than a year old then.
Proposition 187 is what mainstreamed the meme and its associated anti-Latino politics. (It was also what began my turn against conservatism, shocking me with ts open racism.) MEChA became a convenient example to those who claimed that California was being invaded by Latinos who wanted to leech off the public teat and retake American lands for a foreign country. As MEChA is primarily a campus organization, it also fit neatly into the right-wing critiques of political correctness and multiculturalism, high-profile arguments in the early 1990s. MEChA thus became a symbol, along with the Mexican flags at anti-187 rallies, of the supposed reality of the threat Latinos posed to the white middle class, and of the need to enact Prop 187 (which passed by a sizeable majority).
There are a number of complex sources of the meme, I think, including issues of spatial control as well as standard white backlash against immigrants, as well as suspicion of minority rights groups. What is important to know is that the meme is intricately bound up in right-wing anti-Latino politics in California. It will continue to be repeated so long as the Latino population continues to grow and folks like Pat Buchanan theorize about the Golden State becoming a part of the Third World (which is a distinct possibility, but it would come about as a result of an inability to maintain first-world levels of public services as a result of free-market economics, not because of Latino immigration).
The irony is that the louder these sorts of attacks become, the more galvanized Latinos will be to show up at the polls and ensure that if Gray Davis is recalled, Cruz Bustamante will be his successor -- especially with Ward Connerly's Prop 54 on the ballot, another attack at minorities in the vein of 187, 209, and 227.
The Daily Kos has already observed that the GOP's embrace of the MEChA smear is a nice recipe for the party's long-term marginalization in California. I might note that this extends to the broader national scene as well: Other southwestern states, including Texas, are likely to be dominated demographically by Hispanics in the next 10 years or so; and even in the nominally "Red" states of the Midwest and South, there has been a large influx of Latinos and their respective voting bloc, a trend that is likely to only accelerate in the next couple of decades.
The embrace of extremism that this meme represents is going to hurt Republicans. As well it should.
Bush, the Nazis and America
Tuesday, September 09, 2003
[Concluding a brief series: See parts 1, 2 and 3.]
4: Keeping Conscience
It is clear that, while the Bush/Walker clan was utterly conscienceless in its dealings with the Nazis, and at least a substantial portion of the Bush family's fortune is in fact built upon that blood-tainted business, there is no evidence that they had any serious ideological ties to them. In a literal sense, of course, it is silly to refer to them as "Nazis," since one had to be a German citizen and join the party to earn the name factually. But even in the generic ideological sense, the evidence of even an affinity, let alone an identification, with the Nazi ideology is very thin.
Yet when this aspect of the Bush family's history is raised by their critics, it almost inevitably comes attached to the notion that the "Bushes were Nazis." A site called Unknown News, for example, asks, "Were Bush's great-grandfather and grandfather Nazis?" and answers: "While there are no recorded incidents of them goose stepping or giving the 'Heil Hitler' salute, the short answer to the question is yes...." David Romm asks the identical question. Even a column devoted to debunking the notion (to which Romm was responding), Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope,", asks, "Was President Bush's great-grandfather a Nazi?" (Of course, when you frame the question that way, it is a bit simpler to knock down.)
And those are all relatively reasonable sites that try to deal with the serious underlying issues. Even more responsible Web sites, including TakeBackTheMedia, which only focused on the "Bush-Nazi connection" (which, as I already noted, is a factually accurate characterization) indulged itself in the accusations about George H.W. Bush's military service, and moreover featured various pieces of parodistic altered photographs placing member of the Bush administration in Nazi regalia. This latter, of course, is also common at some of the more shrill and irresponsible sites attacking Bush as a Nazi, and is familiar to those of us who have seen the ridiculous "Bush=Hitler" signs.
All of these images underscore a crude misunderstanding of what actually is taking place. As I have argued in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism," there is a significant difference between corporatists and fascists. I provided a general outline there, but let me try to delineate them more clearly:
- Corporatists are typically mainstream conservatives who have been a feature of the American landscape since the onset of the Industrial Age. They are supremely self-interested, and their politics over the years (particularly in their resistance to communism and labor unions) have adapted accordingly to resist change in whatever privileged position they enjoy, and in recent years to roll back impediments to that privilege. Their alliances with various ideological factions have shifted accordingly over the years to reflect those interests, at times aligning themselves with extremist factions as a lever against left-wing radicalism, though since World War II corporatists have maintained a steady power-sharing agreement with mainstream liberals that has been closely associated with the rise of the American mass-consumer society. In recent years, that arrangement has become frayed as conservatives have become increasingly aggressive about rolling back features of the post-Depression rise of federal power, particularly progressive taxation and minority civil rights.
Fascists represent a distinct phenomenon related to the mass politics of the 20th century and beyond. At its core, fascism is a kind of ultranationalist populism in pursuit of the rebirth of a mythical national spirit, of which it claims be the sole true representative. Depending on social conditions, it typically is relegated to the fringe of the cultures in which it arises, especially in its nascent stages. Indeed, small proto-fascist groups can be found in nearly every democratic society.
What is essential to remember is that, historically speaking, fascism has only ever taken root as a genuine political power when it has formed an alliance with mainstream corporatist conservatives. While proto-fascist elements have had their moments in the sun in America -- particularly the ascendant Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s -- they have fallen short mainly because the nation's corporatist conservatives have not deigned to ally themselves with them. This was not true in Germany or Italy, where corporatists such as Fritz Thyssen were all too happy to ride the fascist tide until it began to reveal its true nature and turn on them -- by which point, of course, it was all too late to do anything about it.
In that respect, today's mainstream corporatist conservatives -- and I think it is clear that not only President Bush but the bulk of his administration fit that description -- do not resemble Hitler and the Nazis so much as they resemble the Thyssens and Hindenburgs, the fools who believed that by co-opting their nation's growing extremist contingent, they could control it. And they resemble the Prescott Bushes and Averell Harrimans who only saw the chances for increased profits and consolidation of their power in underwriting the Nazi military machine. In the process, they all combined to unleash one of history's greatest nightmares.
And to the extent that today's Republicans pander to and traffic in extremism within their own ranks, the more they create the actual conditions that give rise to fascism. Especially troubling in recent weeks has been the increasing repetition of the meme that dissent is treason and that therefore liberals are seditious traitors. This ranges from Ann Coulter's attempts to revive McCarthyism to Donald Rumsfeld's charge that critics of the administration are "opposition to the U.S. President was encouraging Washington's enemies and hindering his 'war against terrorism'."
This really is why the questions around the Bush family's connections to the Nazi regime are relevant today. The episode does not point to some secret ideological affinity for fascism so much as it reveals a willingness to empower them if it furthers their ends. The really interesting question raised by the "Bush-Nazi connection" is not so much a hidden skeleton in the family closet as what the episode says about American society's willingness to ignore inconvenient truths of history, and how that affects the ethos of current public policy.
Cecil Adams, in his attempt to debunk the connection, alludes to this when he argues:
- So, did Bush and his firm finance the Nazis and enable Germany to rearm? Indirectly, yes. But they had a lot of company. Some of the most distinguished names in American business had investments or subsidiaries in prewar Germany, including Standard Oil and General Motors. Critics have argued for years that without U.S. money, the Nazis could never have waged war.
While this is quite accurate as far it goes, for some reason, Adams considers this an excuse of some kind: "Hey, everybody did it, and we still do it." This elides the larger question of the real moral culpability that exists for aiding and abetting not just the Nazi nightmare, but violent totalitarian regimes through succeeding years. While it is true that certain American figures -- notably Henry Ford -- faced even greater degrees of culpability for their overt support of fascism, the people who gladly profited from providing essential cogs to the Nazi war machine cannot escape accountability by merely claiming that it was "just business." This defense for all kinds of atrocities is common among American capitalists, and it is at base corrupt and amoral. Indeed, it continues to serve as a handy excuse for the kind of foreign policy that has been practiced ever since the war, and which was specifically shaped by the same self-interested forces that gave way to the Holocaust.
Two other texts -- both balanced, accurate and reliable -- have tackled the larger issue of the role of corporate America's investment in and financial and logistical support for the Nazis, both in their nascent and military-building phases: New York Times reporter Charles Higham's groundbreaking 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy; The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949, and Christopher Simpson's 1993 The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.
Both books -- which deal at least tangentially with the Harriman-Bush connections -- focused on the question of why these captains of industry never had to confront their culpability in the Nazi nightmare. According to Higham, investigations were begun by international tribunals to look into this matter but "the government smothered everything during and even after the war." Higham contended that government officials believed "a public scandal ... would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services," and thought "their trial and imprisonment would have made it impossible for the corporate boards to help the American war effort."
Simpson delves even deeper into this point and ultimately concludes that when it came time for accountability in the mass genocide sponsored by corporatists, international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that were in fact responsible for the problem. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."
As Phil Leggiere argues persuasively in his 2002 article, "The Indiscreet Charm of the Bush Nazi Web Conspiracists":
- What Ö Aaron-Loftus and Simpson substantiate with more detail and in a far wider historical context, is that the relationships between Harriman Bank and other corporations and Nazi-era Germany need to be understood as part of a larger pattern. There is little evidence that the free-form meta-diplomatic modes of international financial deal making developed by Harriman, Bush and company in the 1920s and '30s signaled pro-Nazi or pro-fascist political ideology. However, it did help form a template for U.S. international finance and politics in which support for dictatorships, (financially in the '30s, financially and politically-militarily during the cold war) would become business as usual in U.S. foreign policy. One of the most interesting aspects of both the Simpson and the Aaron and Loftus books is their examination of how the private sector style of international affairs pioneered by Dulles, Harriman, Lovett and Bush in the '30s gradually metaphorphosed, during and after World War 2, into the official realpolitick of the U.S. government, often under the guidance of these same men. The ruling precepts of anti-communism and free trade that guided the international banking elite in the '30s in their dealings with Hitler would become the official policy through which the U.S. would support a wide variety of corporate-friendly dictators throughout the world, from the '50s to the present.
Leggiere's exegesis, by the way, is easily the most thorough and considered account of the matter on the Web, and I recommend it as essential reading for anyone wanting a balanced examination of the facts. I only came across it late in my research for this piece, and was pleased and slightly astonished to see he reached exactly the same conclusion as I had [I should also note that he is a superior writer]. This is its essence:
- There are sharp distinctions between the "Bush is a Nazi" vulgarizations of the conspiranoia-ists, and the documented corporate-Nazi connections delineated by Simpson or Aaron. Where one sees ideology, the other sees opportunism. Where one sees intention, the other sees unintended consequences. The theorists who see this historical episode not as evidence of Nazism but of business-as-usual are clearly the more sophisticated of the bunch, but this is small comfort. The results were (and are) the same.
The vast majority of the Bush-Nazi conspiracy discourse is eccentric and clearly over-the-top. However, it is these web-based amateurs, and not our allegedly working professional journalists, who have kept alive a significant, largely ignored, body of evidence. This evidence is only partly about the Bushes. More significantly, it traces the origins of the cavalier, amoral relationship between American and global financial elites and genocidal dictatorships that has characterized U.S. policy for decades.
Americans have a well-noted tendency toward convenient historical amnesia -- witness the broad lack of awareness of such episodes in American history as the lynching era, or for that matter the current popular tendency toward the easy dismissal of minority grievances as "identity politics," which is clearly based on forgetting where such politics originated.
Coming to terms with the American role in unleashing the Nazi death machine is not a matter of "guilt" or self-hating recrimination: It is a matter of conscience, of keeping faith with real American ideals, such as decency and fair play. It is important to understand that having a conscience affects not only our views of the past but our present behavior. The relevance of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is what it says about the kind of politics being pursued by present and future administrations.
It is unfortunate, of course, that a discussion of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is inspired by the kind of partisan attacks that not only afactually assert the nature of the ties but, in doing so, muddy the waters so that the important underlying issues are obscured. Regardless of how the issue arises, however, it is such a serious matter with far-reaching implications, that eventually serious-minded Americans must confront it.
In this respect, the reaction of the mainstream right to the issue has been particularly telling: Rather than deal with the facts of the matter honestly, conservatives have simply tried to pretend that they don't exist. This is a falsification of history that smacks of the same kind of intentional omissions practiced by Holocaust revisionists or the Communist regimes who were, as Milan Kundera put it, dedicated to "obliterating memory."
George Santayana's famous admonition, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," has become such a commonplace that we seem now not to even recognize it when it manifests itself in public view. And when we dismiss the "Bush-Nazi connection" with a sneer and a roll of the eyes, we partake in nurturing the stuff of nightmares.
- 30 -
A question or two
Monday, September 08, 2003
So George W. Bush wants the taxpayers to foot the bill to the tune of $85 billion for his Iraqi adventure.
Of course, knowing the competence with which Bush's team handles such matters, one can assume the price tag will be closer to $185 billion.
But all this seems to beg a few questions:
Just how, exactly, does Bush plan to pay for this? With another tax cut for the rich, perhaps?
And why doesn't anyone in the press mention the long-range implications of all this for social spending?
Bush, the Nazis and America
[A short series: See Parts 1 and 2.]
3: The Bush ideology
It must be said that none of their business dealings build any kind of case for the contention that either Prescott Bush or George Herbert Walker, the president's forebears, had anything more than a superficial ideological affinity for the Nazis. It is clear that from the majority of these actions that they primarily saw Nazi Germany as an excellent investment opportunity and had not the least hesitation about either doing business with Hitler, nor did they seem to consider the consequences of doing so very grave -- if anything, they were advantageous to their worldview.
This is grossly amoral, of course, but it is on a different plane than the enthusiastic and grotesque support for the Nazi ideology that was trumpeted by other American industrialists, including Henry Ford. Ford, of course, also invested heavily in German industry in a way that was later to haunt America deeply; his German motor plants, after being nationalized by Hitler, were later to produce the engines that propelled Nazi Messerschmitts and tanks.
Tarpley and Chaitkin make much of the Bush family's supposed connections to the eugenics movement, which played a major ideological role in Hitler's eliminationist policies, particularly his anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s. The problem is that they never definitively make such a connection.
It is an unquestioned fact that the Harriman family indeed was deeply involved in eugenics. The matriarch, Mary Williamson Averell Harriman, was one of the original benefactors of Charles Davenport's Eugenics Record Office; her $10,000 grant in 1910 had established the organization. On her death in 1932, Davenport delivered the eulogy at her memorial service, which included this observation:
- "As she often said, the fact that she was brought up among well bred race horses helped her appreciate the importance of a project to study heredity and good breeding in man."
This bears a remarkable resemblance to a passage in Tarpley and Chaitkin:
- She and other Harrimans were usually escorted to the horse races by old George Herbert Walker -- they shared with the Bushes and the Farishes a fascination with "breeding thoroughbreds '' among horses and humans.
The book cites "among other such letters, George Herbert Walker, 39 Broadway, N.Y., to W. A. Harriman, London, Feb. 21, 1925, in WAH papers," but neglects to detail any of the contents of these letters that could support this characterization. This is, unfortunately, typical of this text's propensity to make damning assertions without supporting evidence. Obviously, we know that the Walkers and Bushes were socially close to the Harrimans, but that does not necessitate that they shared views on race and eugenics. It's not an unreasonable surmise, but there is no hard evidence currently available to assume it is true.
Averell Harriman, too, was a major and reportedly enthusiastic contributor to various eugenics causes, including sponsorship of the 1932 International Congress of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Harriman also personally arranged for Hamburg-Amerika to bring Nazi eugenicists, notably the "scientist" most often fingered for inspiring the Holocaust, Dr. Ernst Rudin, who was then a psychiatrist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy and Demography in Berlin. (Rudin was elected president of the Congress at the New York gathering.) I have found one report that says Bert Walker was among the lesser contributors, but I have found no substantiation of this.
Beyond this, there has never been any hard evidence introduced that would substantiate any connection between either the Walkers or, particularly, Prescott Bush and eugenics. This has been a particularly persistent myth for the latter; it is common to find anti-Bush rants on the Web which claim that the elder Bush lost his campaign for the Senate in 1950 because his supposed connection to "the eugenics movement" had been uncovered.
This is afactual. What happened was that Bush, who had worked hard to recover his public image through his tireless USO work, had won the Republican nomination. But on the Sunday before the election, nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson intimated that Bush was president of the Birth Control Society, the predecessor of Planned Parenthood.
As the aforementioned Boston Globe profile details:
- At the time, Connecticut was one of two states to ban the use of birth control, including condoms. (The other state was Massachusetts.)
Connecticut was then 55 percent Catholic, ''and the archbishop was death on this birth control thing,'' Prescott Bush recalled. Many voters phoned the Bush home, asking whether the story were true. Bush denied it all, but it was too late. He lost the Senate race by 1,102 votes, setting the family standard for razor-thin elections until his grandson, George Walker Bush, was elected president a half century later.
There is an important subtext to all of this: The eugenics movement, from its very origins late in the 19th century, was divided into two wings. "Positive" eugenics emphasized encouraging the healthiest and ablest people to reproduce. "Negative" eugenics stressed culling the "less fit" from the population as a means of improving the common stock.
The latter form of eugenics was that which was practiced by the Eugenics Record Office, which went on to gain notoriety not only for its ideological connection to the Nazis (who, following one of the "model laws" developed by Davenport's ERO colleague Harry Laughlin, established laws that led to the sterilization of 350,000 people in Europe) but for its own record in America, where the sterilization laws he promoted were responsible for the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 Americans.
Vehemently opposed to this -- and particularly to the racialist orientation that was the thrust of so much of the "negative" eugenics that enjoyed so much popularity -- were the less-known "positive" eugenicists, who soon began abjuring the term altogether to avoid association with their ostensible cousins. Much of this latter philosophy gradually transformed from advocating sound reproduction for the "fit" to emphasizing sound and healthy reproductive choices for everyone, a decidedly more egalitarian approach. It was also, however, far more controversial, since it inherently argued for greater rights for women.
Foremost among these was the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as well as other multiculturalists such as Margaret Mead and Franz Boas. These thinkers specifically and ardently rejected the tenets of white supremacism and "negative" eugenics. Of course, in subsequent years, all of these people have been tarred -- mostly by anti-abortion activists -- with guilt by association to the eugenics movement. (Planned Parenthood has a thorough and well-argued defense of Sanger up on its Web site.) But there was no mistaking the differences between them at the time.
And if subsequent history is anything to go by, Prescott Bush was ultimately drawn to this segment of the eugenics movement, in contradistinction with that favored by his family friends the Harrimans. There is in fact no evidence produced yet that Bush himself participated in the "negative" eugenics popular in the 1930s.
Indeed, Bush had in 1931 set himself apart politically from his father and his partners, who all were Democrats, by announcing that he was a Republican -- which, at the time, was decidedly the more progressive of the two parties on issues of race and civil rights. When his real political affiliations and beliefs became even more manifest in the 1950s and '60s, as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, it was clear that this progressivism was a central feature.
Prescott Bush was, in fact, the model of the patrician "progressive Republican" from the Northeast whose tradition continues in such moderates as Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island. In those days, of course, they were the predominant force in GOP politics; nowadays, in a GOP dominated by the politics of the Southern Strategy and the "conservative movement," they have been relegated to the party's powerless fringes. But in his day, Prescott Bush was an outspoken and effective advocate of civil rights, women's reproductive rights, and a number of other progressive platforms that earned him the enmity of the party's conservative wing. Indeed, it is one of the more grotesque ironies of the presidency of Bush's grandson that it has done its utmost to empower the same kind of religious extremists who once tormented his forebear.
For that transformation, of course, George H.W. Bush's craven capitulations to the religious right beginning in 1988 and throughout his administration are largely responsible. In many ways, it marked the death knell for any genuinely progressive wing of the Republican Party, and finalized the exodus of many former party stalwarts (myself included).
However, before then, George H.W. Bush's politics had primarily been modeled after his father's, which were decidedly progressive in nature. And his own combat service in World War II should lay to rest any questions about his relationship to the Nazis.
In that respect, one of the accusations hurled by the "Bushes were Nazis" theorists -- that George H.W. Bush signed up for service in the Pacific to deflect questions about the family's patriotism -- is fairly bothersome. TakeBackTheMedia put it this way:
- To offset their reputation as World War II traitors, former President Bush joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot.
Tarpley and Chaitkin (and others as well) take this a step further: They argue that young Bush was specifically sent to the war in the Pacific because the war in Germany was viewed by many on the right at being against our "friends," while the war with Japan was being billed as a "race war," which would have meshed with the Bush family's ostensible white-supremacist views.
As a matter of fact, the Pacific war indeed was being widely portrayed as a fight against the "Jap race." Consider the following speech from John Rankin, the Mississippi Democrat, on the floor of Congress Dec. 15, 1941:
- This is a race war! The white manís civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism. ... Once a Jap always a Jap. You cannot change him. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. ... I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or on the mainland ... Iím for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii, now and putting them in concentration camps... Damn them! Letís get rid of them now!
While Rankin was a Democrat, these views were held across the range of American politics. And as one might infer, their broad acceptance in fact played a major (if not the decisive) role in causing 110,000 Japanese-Americans to be interned in concentration camps during the war. This project was clearly bipartisan in nature, and indeed many Republicans played leading roles in it. Prescott Bush, however, was not one of them.
In this regard, it is important to remember that there is no evidence that Prescott Bush himself was either a eugenicist or a racist. He may have been utterly amoral and conscienceless in his willingness to do business with Nazis and his eugenicist friends the Harrimans, but there is even yet no evidence he in fact shared their views. We might be able to surmise such views from the circumstances, but there is no real proof of them.
Likewise, there are no letters or statements even intimating that George H.W. Bush fought in the Pacific for any purpose other than patriotism, and there is no evidence he was shipped there instead of to Europe by any kind of deliberate efforts on his father's part or his own, let alone for any racist reasons. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, a groundless and careless smear.
In the end, it should be fairly clear that the grounds for claiming that the Bush forebears were "Nazis" are thin and largely nonexistent. However, that does not relieve them of culpability, moral and otherwise, for their roles in the rise of the Nazis.
Next: Keeping Conscience