Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Catch 22 of the word “fascism”
My friend David Neiwert in his ongoing discussion of the nature of fascism and our present risk of genuine emergent fascism in America replies to my suggestion that we discard the term "fascism”.

I'm not sure that we can discard the term "fascism”…, if we want to be accurate about the ongoing phenomenon. Certainly its widespread misuse and abuse has rendered it impotent to a degree; but if we start calling it, accurately, American Fascism, then I think that gets the point across simply and unmistakably.

He then elaborates a bit on why this is the right word. In this current essay, he moves forward, synthesizing the message of his whole series. In doing so he brings forth the conundrum of using this word. In grad school, I often heard the advice that for a good dissertation (or book) the author needs to have the thesis so clear in their own mind that it can be stated in one sentence (One short sentence. Most grad students I knew could have produced a three-page, grammatically correct sentence. And often did).

By the way, watching this synthesis happen is what I find attractive about blogging. Ideas grow in the telling. Feedback is nice, but even in its absence, it's valuable to be forced to form ideas into words and sentences through the act of explaining them in public. In blogging there is a danger that people of like ideas will form incestuous little communities that reinforce their pre-existing prejudices and substitute loud agreement for real dialog. But this danger exists in any medium and any forum. Commercial media play to their core audiences and intellectual journals cluster around exclusive schools of thought. This risk is far less dangerous than the risk of intellectual starvation in isolation.

Back to David and the fascists (which, despite its sound, would not be a good name for a band). It’s tempting to sum up the end point of synthesis that David is moving towards as: the fascists are coming, the fascists are coming! Tempting, but unfair; his thesis is far more sophisticated and involved than that. Yet it’s not an entirely inaccurate summary either. And that brings out the problem of the word. If I summarize David’s thoughtful and timely message that way, many people will dismiss it without another thought.

Personally, I’m torn on this. One part of me is my academic and pedantic side. I am very concerned about precision and accuracy in choosing words. “Fascism” is the right word to describe the ugly emergent force we are discussing. David makes this same point, quoting Robert Paxton:

We must have a word, and for lack of a better one, we must employ the word that Mussolini borrowed from the vocabulary of the Italian Left in 1919, before his movement had assumed its mature form. Obliged to use the term fascism, we ought to use it well.

The other side in my personal struggle is my tactical sense. To use the word fascism, outside an academic discourse, invites immediate dismissal for two reasons.

First, making the accusation of fascism is an element that immediately brands the speaker a parody of a left-wing radical. The image of a too-politically correct leftist calling anyone, who even temporarily frustrates his will, a fascist. This is primarily a self-inflicted wound by leftists. Enough of us live up to this stereotype and fling the word around with wild abandon, that it no longer has any power. “You guys think everyone is a fascist,” is the response. No serious hearing is given to anything we say after the F word crosses our lips. Furthermore, rightwing demagogues like Rush Limbaugh have further degraded and diluted the word by applying it to anyone on the left that they feel is being doctrinaire. To many, it has no meaning, it is just an all-purpose epithet.

Second, most people do not understand what fascism is. Correcting this, of course, is the one of the whole points of David’s series. However, the misunderstanding is so complete, that it would be hard to get many people to listen to an explanation. You see, they think they already know what fascism is. Fascism is the German Nazi party before 1945 and a few loonies who like to wear their uniforms since. Fascism is a uniform with a Sam Browne belt, high boots, swastikas, phallic salutes, and a desire to kill all of the Jews (or deny that any were ever killed). No one in mainstream politics is like that. Therefore we have no fascism.

They are wrong, but how can we tell them? Fascism is highly mutable: “…[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy… not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity.” (Paxton again) American fascism will be folksy. It’s anthems will be country-rock fight songs, not military marching songs. It will drape itself in our flag (not Nazi Germany’s flag). It will be Christian (evangelical and protestant, but not of any identifiable denomination, and, paradoxically, somewhat ecumenical so even certain Catholics will feel at home in it). And—this I must emphasize—it will deny that it is fascist. Fascism equals Nazism, which is German and therefore foreign. Our fascism will think itself all-American and not beholden to foreign ideologies. They will deny that they are fascists and they will believe that they are telling he truth.

So what is the solution? Do we secretly use the word among ourselves and create some other political science euphemism for public discourse? No. The word “fascism” is probably inescapable. And it still has some utility. Despite its dilution to the point of disappearance, it still has a vestigial power to shock. When people can be brought to understand that the danger is real and that this really is what fascism means. Some of them will pause. Many will find some way to delude themselves and go on the same way, but some will turn back. We must assure that that some is enough.

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