Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fascism, Pseudo-Fascism, and the Real Danger

Some of those of us on the left have been teetering on the edge of Godwin's law for some time now, as we attempt to describe the current politics without saying that the current party is, well, like the Nazis. For, as Wittgenstein once wrote in another context, "the kinship is just as undeniable as the difference". And, I would add, just as important. (No one has been more careful and informative about this than journalist David Neiwart, whose powerful, multi-part essay about this topic is one of the crucial documents of the Bush years.)

What we need here is a powerful English synonym for a wonderful Talmudic term: "l'havdil", which I believe literally means "to make a distinction", but which is used to emphasize that a comparison is being made only along a single axis, and that the two objects are not otherwise similar. (Thus, God rules like a King, l'havdil -- they are alike only in the attribute of rulership, not that Kings -- a rather debased crowd, after all -- are any other way like the Holy One, blessed be He.)

After all, Bush is not rounding up citizens and putting them in camps and murdering them. Although, it's worth noting, that only that last phrase is false: Bush had imprisoned at least one citizen for more than three years without trial, access to council or any of the other rights that theoretically distinguish us from dictatorships. And the Bush administration defends its right to do this to this day. And, of course, non-citizens -- many absolutely innocent (and if you deny that, answer this: how do you know, given that there have been no trials, no hearings, nothing that could determine their guilt?) -- have been detained in camps in Guantanamo for years now.

You see how difficult it is? Any distinction -- and the distinctions are real, and important -- has to be drawn very carefully. Bush was elected rather than seizing control... well, he was elected in 2004, unless you think that very-easily-hacked voting machines, run with no supervision by a Republican-operative-owned company, might have been altered, as their differences from historically-reliable exit polling might well indicate. And in 2000, he was only elected due to judges shutting down a recount that would have given the election to the man who -- indisputably -- got more votes than Bush did.

But that's not what I came here to talk about, as Arlo Guthrie once said ten minutes or so into a song. I came to talk about the draft.

What draft? We don't have a draft.

No, we don't. Although the military is badly, badly hurting for soldiers -- and, indeed, is essentially conducting a draft, just one confined to people who had at some point volunteered for the armed forces. A back-door draft, as John Kerry called it.

So why aren't we drafting anyone, if we need soldiers so badly?

It wouldn't fly politically. They couldn't get away with it. The war's too unpopular.

Which, of course, implies that they will do it when they can get away with it -- or think that they can.

As far as a draft goes, that wouldn't be so utterly dire: the U.S. has had a draft before, and survived it. I think it would be a truly terrible idea, for reasons ranging from the principled (for my own quirky reasons, I'm actually against "involuntary servitude" -- of any sort -- unless in a genuinely existential crisis, e.g. I think that the Soviet Union was probably justified in drafting soldiers after the Nazi invasion of 1941) to the practical (I believe it would allow the current gang of fools and criminals to start even more wars (which they fairly clearly want to do), contrary to widely-held liberal theories that it would restrain them by pulling in a broader class of people).

It's what else they will do, when they can get away with it (or think they can) that worries me.

Bush has already claimed well-neigh dictatorial powers -- locking up citizens indefinitely without trial, doing anything contrary to explicit U.S. law as long as he claims it is necessary for our security, etc. What keeps this from being a dictatorship is that he is -- so far -- using them in a comparatively restrained way.

A large segment of the right has been calling this week for the prosecution of newspapers for publishing articles that are claimed to be "harmful to our security" (even though they are really only harmful to Bush's political image).

A similar segment of the right has openly called for political violence: Ann Coulter, to name one figure indulged by the mainstream, has called for the murder of supreme court justices, newspaper staffs and many others (including, by implication, all liberals).

A small but influential segment of the religious right wants -- quite explicitly -- to turn the country into a theocracy.

None of this means we are a fascist state -- we clearly are not -- nor that the Republican party is a fascist part -- it clearly isn't. What it means, though, is that fascist ideas -- and the murder of your political enemies is about as fascist as you can get -- are circulating openly and widely on the right. They aren't accepted yet. But they're there, they're considered. They are thinkable. Fascism has become an important part of the mixture of ideas on the right, swirled in with the vast, contradictory stew that includes such flavors as libertarianism, religious nationalism, neoconservatism and rank corruption, among others. It's not dominant.

What I worry about is after the next terrorist attack.

For -- horrible as it is to think -- there almost certainly will be another one. The Bush administration has been pursuing policies which, while probably no actively designed to create another one, have been far more efficient at achieving that end than most of their policies are at achieving their stated goals.

Think about how far this country went after 9/11. Think about what people were willing to tolerate -- even supposed "liberals" -- in the months and years after. Think about what they've gotten away with -- including, basically, all of the horrors they have unleashed upon our country in the years since.

What worries me is that we have a political culture on the right (and in most of the center) which would be primed to implement and accept a genuinely fascist state (probably with a larger-than-historically-found-in-earlier-fascist-states element of theocracy) were another terrorist attack to occur.

Particularly if it were worse than 9/11.

As David Neiwart (who is -- to repeat -- the most careful and insightful analyst of the pseudo-fascism of the contemporary right) has emphasized, the fact that the current trends are something less than full fascism is not a recipe for complacency. Once a movement is a full-fledged fascist movement, it is (likely) too late to stop it. That Bush's supporters -- those willing to applaud our use of torture, to praise our gutting of the bill of rights, to call for prosecution as treason the reporting of secret and unchecked government programs, those who wish to write their religious beliefs into law -- are not yet an openly fascist movement simply means that it is not too late to stop them.

The most powerful and important genuinely conservative insight has been a suspicion of unchecked government power. To the degree that conservatives have been a vital part of our best historical tradition, it is because they have insisted upon this insight.

It is an insight that most followers of Bush have now simply abandoned -- that what is known as "conservatism" in this country only occasionally even pays lip service to any more. Now they are all about power -- their power. That, all factions of the contemporary right seem to agree on.

We must fight them while we can. After the next attack will likely be too late.

Update (07/03): Yesterday Michelle Goldberg made a variation of my argument in this post, talking about the rise of fascism-like thought in the U.S. She quotes Roger Griffin's The Nature of Fascism thus:
In its chrysalis stage fascism is but a publicistic and activistic (or 'agit-prop') phenomenon on the fringe of mainstream political culture and developments, condemned to lead a marginal existence in articles, pamphlets and books, often with negligible readerships and in the radicalism of ineffectual political factions... Even the progression to the columns of large-circulation newspapers and well-attended public meetings represents a quantum leap for the diffusion of fascism which is still far removed from nation-wide mass rallies, extensive paramilitary violence and the 'seizure' of state power.
Goldberg then says that "American fascism has made this quantum leap", citing evidence similar to that which I cited above. She ends by saying that "while America remains long way from real fascism, fascism has come a long way in America".

Link via this post of David Neiwert, who has further thoughts on the recent escalation of eliminationist rhetoric from the right which are, as usual, well worth reading.

Update (07/05): The good news is that this topic seems to be spreading. In addition to the recent Michelle Goldberg essay which I linked to in the previous update, we have (via the ever-invaluable David Neiwert) the latest Gene Lyons column, where he says:
Reasonable people never want to believe that extremists believe their own rhetoric. But quit kidding yourselves. This is mass psychosis. The next terrorist strike, should it happen, will be blamed on the enemy within: treasonous “liberals” who dissent from the glorious reign of George W. Bush. Unless confronted, it’s through such strategems that democracies fail and constitutional republics become dictatorships.

The full essay can be found here. Note to trolls: if you want to reply, please note that Lyons is not saying that we live in a fascist state, or that the Republican party is a fascist party (nor is Goldberg, nor I). We are talking about spreading, and dangerous, ideas. If you want to disagree, at least disagree with what people are saying and not some barely-recognizable distortion thereof.

1 comment:

beepbeepitsme said...

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Sinclair Lewis