In response to the rising tide of people using the “F-word” to describe the Bush administration’s numerous tactics for dividing the world into those who are “with them” in their perpetual war for perpetual peace, or those who are “against them,” James Traub of the New York Times wrote an article in the June 1st Sunday Magazine called “Weimar Whiners.”
Traub starts by specifying only those discussions of Fascism which made explicit comparisons to Germany in the early 30’s, allowing him to dismiss all talk of Fascism as a trivialization of the Holocaust:
..the 1933 analogy constitutes a gross trivialization of the worst event in modern history.
Nothing surprising here — the NY Times loves to publish articles which attack anyone who uses the Holocaust for any purpose other than legitimating Israel.
I remember when a fantastic Broadway play about a theater troupe in Poland during the war was cancelled despite sell-out preview performances with standing ovations every night. Why? Because the NY Times (specifically Frank Rich and Eli Wiesel) ran it into the ground. Hasn’t anyone at the NY Times read Hannah Arendt? We do ourselves a disservice by turning the perpetrators of the Holocaust into inhuman monsters whose actions are beyond comprehension. Certainly the means by which the Bush administration secured its shaky legitimacy through the use of war and nationalism has something to do with what happened in 1933. How is saying so a trivialization? There might also be important differences between then and now — but these should be a matter of debate, not something that even discussing would be a sin against the past.
Traub then goes on to make his only substantive point. He agrees that:
Left to its own devices, the Bush administration, and especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, might be perfectly willing to expand government powers to fight terrorism no matter the cost to individual liberties.
But he argues that the US has strong “civic and state institutions, including the media, the judiciary and the party system” which stemmed the rise of Fascism (although he won’t use that word) in the 60’s and have already done so now:
Opposition from both liberals and libertarian conservatives — i.e., Republicans — killed the TIPS program and may already be hindering next-generation Patriot II legislation; organs of the ”corporate-controlled media,” like ”60 Minutes,” have reported on the growing threat to civil liberties.
So such the use of the word Fascism not only trivializes the past, it also does disservice to the real strength of American Democracy. While I disagree with the first point, I am willing to grant that the US does have strong institutions which have in the past, and will continue to resist attempts to undermine our basic freedoms. But that is the very point of these comparisons — to warn against these attempts and to spur these institutions into action to defend those freedoms. Unfortunately, the failure of people like Traub to take these threats seriously has already led to significant losses of freedoms. Traub quotes Norman Siegel, the former head of the NY ACLU as saying:
… he has been hard put to explain to skeptical audiences that the Patriot Act, for all its problems, does not preclude traditional forms of peaceful protest.
It may not in law — but anyone those who actually attempted to march for peace in NY know that the truth is quite different. A climate was created in which anti-war protests were seen as unpatriotic, and even themselves a threat to our national security. When peaceful protest is a threat to national security we have to wonder what it means to have such rights.
Traub’s article’s biggest fault, however, is that Fascism is, of course, not only associated with Nazism. Fascism originated not in Germany, but in Italy. And at the time Fascism had many supporters in the West, who saw it as a bulwark against Communism. Not unlike how the US once saw Sadaam Hussein as a bulwark against Radical Islam. (Or Radical Islam as a bulwark against Communism — as in Afghanistan.)
In 1995, Umberto Eco, in an article in the NY Review of Books entitled “Ur-Fascism,” attempted to define Fascism. In doing so he drew from Wittgenstein’s notion of a “game” to come up with a prototypical definition of the word. As Eco explains (this is a long quote, but the whole thing is necessary to understand his point):
There was only one Nazism. We cannot label Franco’s hyper-Catholic Falangism as Nazism, since Nazism is fundamentally pagan, polytheistic, and anti-Christian. But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change. The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it. Consider the following sequence:
1 2 3 4 abc bcd cde def Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the features abc, group two by the features bcd, and so on. Group two is similar to group one since they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c). The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two, but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one. Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola.
Eco then proceeds to list the features of this Ur-Facism. Features which may not all belong to every Fascist regime, but which given the existence of a sufficient number of such features would allow us to identify Fascism when we see it. Here are those features, with excerpts from Eco’s detailed discussion of each one:
- The cult of tradition (syncretistism).
Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
- Rejection of modernism.
… even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth … The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.
- Action for action’s sake.
Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.
- Anti-intellectualism (Rejection of “analytical criticism”).
…disagreement is treason.
- Fear of difference.
…Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
- Appeal to a frustrated middle class.
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.
The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside…
- Mythologizing the enemies.
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. … Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.
- Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.
… life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war.
- Popular elitism.
… Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.
- Everybody is educated to become a hero.
This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.
…which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits…
- Qualitative populism.
Individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.
Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. … But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
So how does the Bush administration stack up against Eco’s Prototypical definition of Fascism? I was going to spell it all out with links, but really, anyone whose been reading the news can play this game. But it is only a “game” in Wittgenstein’s sense of the word — the reality is anything but.
In an footnote to this post, I would like to point out that this Wittgensteinian notion of a game was also used in another important article:
Coleman, Linda, and Paul Kay. “Prototype Semantics: The English Verb ‘Lie’.” Language 55 (1981): 26-44.
In that article the authors did research to find out what the features were that people used to define whether something constituted a lie. I’ve been wondering if Bush’s advisors have been reading this article to figure out how to extricate themselves from the whole State of the Union uranium fiasco?
UPDATE: There is a good post on fascism at Eschaton.
2nd UPDATE: Well, everything I wrote here is superseded by an excellent, well researched, carefully thought out article (PDF file) available over at Orcinus. If you are worried about the rise of Fascism in America — and you should be — read this article!!!