13 February 2005

Red, white and ... blue, not black

So Apostropher pointed me to this annotated photo essay about a military recruiting rally. It's long and a downer. Before you decide to skip this one, take a quick look at the money shot of soldiers, Jesus, and a great big American flag all together, and reflect that this photograph was taken in a church.

Those pictures make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

In a minute, I'll start to answer whether this is serious business or not by linking you to the place where I found Robert O. Paxton, Mellon Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Columbia University, and his 1998 essay “The Five Stages of Fascism.” First, let me give you a quote from him.

[O]ne can not identify a fascist regime by its plumage. George Orwell understood at once that fascism is not defined by its clothing. If, some day, an authentic fascism were to succeed in England, Orwell wrote as early as 1936, it would be more soberly clad than in Germany. The exotic black shirts of Sir Oswald Mosley are one explanation for the failure of the principal fascist movement in England, the British Union of Fascists. What if they had worn bowler hats and carried well-furled umbrellas. The adolescent skinheads who flaunt the swastika today in parts of Europe seem so alien and marginal that they constitute a law-and-order problem (serious though that may be) rather than a recurrence of authentic mass-based fascism, astutely decked out in the patriotic emblems of their own countries. Focusing on external symbols, which are subject to superficial imitation, adds to confusion about what may legitimately be considered fascist.

...[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.

Looking at those pictures, I see what I imagine that a distinctly American fascism would look like, as Paxton says. On the surface, it doesn't look like a Nazi rally, but if fascism comes to the US, it won't look like Nazis, it will look like Norman Rockwell. The pictures look too much like my lefty dystopian fantasies. Am I overstating the case? Lefties have been making jokes since the election about expatriating. They're getting less and less funny. Are we overreacting?

We mustn't overstate the case. We aren't running murder factory concentration camps around the clock. We don't have secret police carting away dissidents every day. You can make fun of the President on national television. America is not a fascist state, not a totalitarian state, not a genocidal state, not a police state, not a military junta, not a one-party state, not a dictatorial cult of personality. But it is not hard to argue that aspects of these things are creeping in around the edges, with our damaged civil liberties, our endorsement and participation in torture, in too much of the rhetoric in our public discourse and so on. How do we talk about these things without running afoul of Godwin's Law?

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. However there is also a widely recognized codicil that any intentional triggering of Godwin's Law in order to invoke its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.

David “Orcinus” Neiwert has done some very deep thinking on this subject. His blog is largely concerned with his observations in the wake of covering the Patriot movement as a journalist. He has three essays that I believe are importanr—essential—to read.

First, his award-winning essay The Political and the Personal. It's long for a blog post, but not too long, and he talks about his personal experiences of the shift in our nation's political winds. I think it's important to read because it makes clear that he's not some effete lefty urbanite like me: he's a sober heartland working-class American who knows whereof he speaks. It's also a heartrending essay on its own terms, and my hope is that it will hook you on his writing.

And as my oldest friends can tell you, the truth is that I used to be fairly conservative myself. I come from a working-class family—my mother's side of the family was in road construction, and my dad's was mostly a farming family, though his father actually was an auto mechanic.

Working-class values, and my belief in blue-collar virtues—like integrity, decency, hard work, honesty, common sense, and fair play—all were quite deeply ingrained. When I was younger, I really believed that conservatism best embodied those values.

Over the years that morphed, especially as I worked as a newspaperman (beginning in about 1976, when I was just turning 20). I was confronted innumerable times with realities that conflicted with my old preconceptions. I came to know hard-working Democrats who had the highest integrity and greatest decency (people like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus). I got to know Republicans who were prolific liars of the lowest integrity (like George Hansen, Steve Symms and Helen Chenoweth). And, of course, I got to know scumbag Democrats and honest Republicans as well, people who jibed with my old worldview. But it was obvious that the old construct was not really valid.

What became especially clear was that—even though I had always believed, and still do, that upper-class and urban liberals are prone to a phony compassion that only extended to various victim classes, rather like a parlor game, often rationalized with a tortuous intellectualism—conservatives likewise were fond of wrapping themselves in my old-fashioned, working-class values (along with the American flag, of course) while utterly undermining the ability of ordinary, working-class people to make a decent living and obtain equal opportunity.

Second, and most important, his very long, very thoughtful essay Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism. He describes in detail the fundamental characteristics of fascism, the ways in which this strain in politics has cropped up throughout the last century in America, and then examines how right-wing rhetoric in the mass media is implicated in its recent manifestations. If you follow the fulminarions of the right, you'll be reassured that you aren't wrong to be spooked. If you don't, you'll be discomforted to know how spooky it is. And how it does matter.

The line between right-wing extremists and “the conservative movement” has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.

Certainly it is hard to distinguish between George Bush's contempt for the United Nations and the kind that a John Bircher might harbor. Moreover, Bush panders to these sentiments; he reportedly waxed nostalgic before a group of visiting Southerners about the old “Get us Out of the U.N.!” billboards that were common in Bircher country.

This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush “fascists.” I'm here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren't. Yet. And how we'll know when they are.

Third, he follows up with another not-quite-so-long essay, The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism, talking about how the current state of the American right really isn't fascist, but is implicated in being something at least related to it.

Certainly, one only needs review the current state of affairs to recognize that the “conservative movement”—especially as embodied by the Bush administration—has wandered far astray from its original values. Just how “conservative” is it, after all, to run up record budget deficits? To make the nation bleed jobs? To invade another nation under false pretenses? To run roughshod over states' rights? To impose a radical unilateralist approach to foreign policy? To undermine privacy rights and the constitutional balance of power? To quanitifably worsen the environment, while ignoring the realities of global warming? To grotesquely mishandle the defense of our national borders?

Mind you, it is not merely liberals who have observed this transformation. It includes a number of longtime conservatives who remain true to their principles as well.

The “conservative movement,” in the course of this mutation, has become something entirely new, a fresh political entity quite unlike we've ever seen before in our history, but one that at the same time seems somehow familiar, as though we have seen something like it.

What's become clear as this election year has progressed—and especially in the wake of the Republican National Convention—is the actual shape of this fresh beast.

Call it Pseudo Fascism. Or, if you like, Fascism Lite. Happy-Face Fascism. Postmodern Fascism. But there is little doubt anymore why the shape of the “conservative movement” in the 21st century is so familiar and disturbing: Its architecture, its entire structure, has morphed into a not-so-faint hologram of 20th-century fascism.

It is not genuine fascism, even though it bears many of the basic traits of that movement. It lacks certain key elements that would make it genuinely so ....

Which brings us back to the pictures that started this. Those pictures are not a demonstration of fascism, but a sample of how it might taste, a look at our fascism in potentia. Orcinus quotes Billmon describing the fear this provokes in those of us who see it.

The truly sinister thing—and the reason why that Slate story made the hair stand up on the back of my neck—is that even as these people move, like sleepwalkers, towards a distinctly American version of the cult of the leader, most of them honestly appear to have no idea what they're doing, or creating. I'm not even sure the Rovians themselves entirely understand the atavistic instincts they've awakened in Bush's most loyal followers. But the current is running now, fast and strong. And we're all heading for the rapids.

Please, even if you don't follow the link above to my long comments, take the time to go read what David Neiwert has to say.


mynym said...

How can you talk about fascism or Nazism without ever actually looking at the history? Every fascist party came up out of socialist parties, as if fascism is socialism's heretical branch. It seems to happen when socialist's get patriotic. It seems to be when effeminates (socialists) begin to try to be manly (nationalism). There are the National Socialists, the pattern of Nietzschean socialists.

(The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History
of Nazi Germany
William L. Shirer
(Simon and Schuster) 1990 :238-40)
From what I read, someone mumbles a little bit about paganism and then says that fascism can "look like" pretty much anything, even a Norman Rockwell painting. That is utterly absurd and indicates that they are using the term "fascism" as "Hey, I don't like it. I don't like 1950s America. So it is settled then, that's fascism."

It is not as if the people of Norman Rockwell's paintings were those who had just fought fascism, I suppose?

To just discard the pagan element of tribalism in the Nazi case is absurd. It was not some side note or just some artifact of history that can be done away with by some vague handwaving. The elimination of the "Jewish influence" was the foundation of Nazism. It's a matter of religion and root philosophy.

"By killing the Jews, Western culture would eradicate those who had 'invented' God..... The holocaust is a reflex, the more complete for being long inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and
animist needs."
(George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press) :41)

Eros vs. Logos, the humane vs. the animal, note the pattern of sexual perversion.Is that a pattern typical to effete socialists or to conservatives?

Jonathan Korman said...

Mynym, I hesitate to respond to your very discursive post, but there is one point which you raise where, to be on the safe side, I want to clarify. Not everything that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting represents American fascism. Indeed, I have spoken in praise of Rockwell on this very blog. I was asserting only that if American fascism were to arise, it would look not like Nazi iconography, but like American iconography, which certainly includes Rockwell's style.

mynym said...

"...it would look not like Nazi iconography, but like American iconography..."

The level of the scholarship you are apparently going by in general is lacking. My comments are discursive because there are so many things to go to or attempt to deal with.

As to art,
Fascist art will be more of the avante-guarde, as it was, and most likely will have some immanent focus and pattern to it.

Will it vary, yes. But art represents philosophy, it is not totally random.

David Neiwert said...

Thanks for the very kind words. I've been ruminating on this very same Web site for a few days and hopes to post something about it soon. My thoughts certainly run along the same lines.

As for mynym's claims that fascism is related to socialism ... not a single serious scholar or historian who has written on fascism accepts this characterization. Paxton is particularly useful in explaining how the Nazis adopted the revolutionary guise of socialism by including certain pseudo-socialist ideas in its original program, but these were primarily cover; its real program, revealed by its actions (as opposed to its characteristically mendacious words), was specifically anti-socialist. Indeed, Shirer specifically describes this as well. Remember, the first Germans placed in concentration camps (specifically Dachau) were not Jews; they were socialists and communists.

Look at the history, indeed.

Here is a useful link with more data.

It's also worth pointing out that overemphasizing the pagan aspects of fascism very much distorts, once again, what the fascists actually did and said. They were constantly invoking Christianity and traditional religious beliefs in public, even though within their close circles their leaders (at least in Germany, though not in Italy) indeed saw the church as an enemy that could be destroyed later. Nonetheless, these invocations played a significant role in their public appeal.

Fascism was a complex phenomenon. Reducing it to mere paganism is a grotesque mistake. I'd suggest mynym spend a little time reading Paxton, Roger Griffin, or Stanley Payne before continuing much further with his thesis.

Miniver is exactly right: Fascism is mutative, and will adopt as its own the iconography of whichever national identity it claims to be the true representative of. In America, as Paxton and Griffin observe, it has always cloaked itself the flag, mom, and apple pie, as well as Christianity; the classic example of this is the Klan of the 1920s, whose program was primarily dedicated to what it called "100 percent Americanism."

mynym said...

"...not a single serious scholar or historian who has written on fascism accepts this characterization."

"[W]e should do well to remember that Fascism...considered itself a form of Socialism, freed of humanitarian sentimentalism and Marxist dialectic, truer to fundamental Socialist aims in that it tried to adapt itself to a changing historical reality which the old Marxist interpretation no longer suited."
Weber, Eugen. Varieties of Fascism: Doctrines of Revolution in the Twentieth Century Princeton, New Jersey, D.
Van Nostrand Company Inc., 1964.:29)

"What also distinguished National Socialism from the mainstream Left was Hitler's insistence that he aimed to "destroy Marxism," and he railed in Mein Kampf against "scatterbrains" who "have not understood the difference between socialism and Marxism."

Yet on other occasions he confessed himself an heir to the Marxian legacy. "National Socialism derives from each of the two camps the pure idea that characterizes it, national resolution from the bourgeois tradition, [and] vital, creative socialism from the teachings of Marxism," he told an interviewer in1934. And his one-time disciple Hermann Rauschning wrote that Hitler once said to him:

I have learned a great deal from Marxism as I do not hesitate to admit....The difference between them and myself is that I have really put intopractice what these peddlers and pen-pushers have timidly begun.The whole of National Socialism is based on it.... National Socialism is what Marxism might have been if it could have broken its absurd and artificial ties with a democratic order."
(Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism
(2002: Encounter Books)
by Joshua Muravchik :164)

Your insistence that socialism has nothing to do with fascism is the rough equivalent of saying that Catholicism has nothing to do with Protestantism. Even if there are heretical branches in general pattern of philosophy, philosophies can be built on the same foundation. Indeed, sometimes it is those disagreements that are the most vitriolic or violent.

The unifying foundation of socialism and fascism is philosophic naturalism, a distortion of science. Given philosophic naturalism, Marxists believe that humans are the sum of their parts but they focus on the environment/nurture. Fascists, in contrast, tend to focus on genetics/nature and begin to create biopolicies given that. (See: The Nazi Doctors; Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, By Robert Lifton)

You might say that they have a concern for national health, as socialists typically say that they do.

As to the paganism, it was not exactly some private thing or an artifact of history. Instead, it comports well with philosophic naturalism, as a Nature based religion of the Blood and Soil with a reversion to pagan tribalism. Marxists have their collectivist classes, Nazis have their tribalism.

mynym said...

"Remember, the first Germans placed in concentration camps (specifically Dachau) were not Jews; they were socialists and communists.

Look at the history, indeed.

The Catholic church persecuted Protestant heretics, therefore Catholicism and Protestantism cannot both be forms of Christianity.

The National Socialists persecuted Communists, therefore National Socialism and Communism cannot both be forms of socialism.

Wrong, in both instances....

Jonathan Korman said...

Commenter mynym is apparently a professional Holocaust denier.

Surprise surprise.