Editor's Notes

Friday, August 14, 2009
True North Perspective
Vol. 4, No. 38 (189)

Land of the free? Home of the Brave?

'If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

'If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process altogether, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.'

Scared? Maybe you should be

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship [...] the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

     — Hermann Goering interviewed during the Nuremberg Trials, as per the invaluable Snopes.com.

Shutting down for being shouted down

I know, I know: long-time readers will notice that I have quoted Goering before, but the words bear repeating.

I was talking with my father last week and we had a brief conversation about the "debate" they're having south of the border on the Obama administration's attempt to reform the American health care system.

"Oh that," I said, "I haven't really been paying much attention. I can't take the lies and the lunacy any more. I think it was the senior citizen, who didn't understand that Medicare already is 'socialized medicine' that broke my brain."

But that's an important strategy used by fascists — to turn "debate" into such a stinking pile of lies that ordinary people simply shake their heads and ignore it all-together, either believing that no reasonable person could possibly be taken in, or simply unwilling to expend the necessary energy to call the liars on their lies. (Yes, I used the word, fascist; give me a chance. I'm going somewhere with this.)

* * *

A while back, my mother mentioned a talk she'd had with a long-time family friend, a man my mother considers a brother by all but blood, whom she's known since they were both children and who I still call "Uncle" when I see him. "Uncle Phil" was born in Ohio, served in Korea and is now enjoying his retirement in up-state New York. Though a liberal by American standards, he is a patriot in a way that I, as a Canadian, don't fully understand.

Uncle Phil, as I've known him, is a nice guy — affable, quick with a joke or a pun, a man who loves his four children and seems to still be very much in love with his wife after what has to be close to 50 years of marriage. I like him. We exchange hugs when we see each other, and mean it.

And yet, I've never really felt close to him. To me, there has always been a sort of ... vacant quality to him, or to his conversation, that I could never break through.

Conversations in my family have always included those things famously supposed to be banned from polite conversation, including politics and religion. But not so much when Uncle Phil is around. When Uncle Phil is around, conversation seldom strays beyond friends and family, current movies and best-selling novels. There's laughter, yes, but (to me) it's shallow and so, fundamentally unsatisfying.

Still, my mum sometimes works on him and he was certainly thrilled when the era of Bush II came to its long over-due end, so it's not like there ought to be an unbridgeable philosophical divide between them.

As part of her effort to get Uncle Phil to at least understand where she is coming from, she offered to buy him a subscription to a small peace-oriented newsletter published here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' CCPA Monitor. The organization describes itself as, "an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social and economic justice". By Bushite standards, that probably sounds pretty terrible, but it's part of the mainstream (if somewhat marginalized) Canadian political discourse.

But Uncle Phil would have none of it. "I don't want my name to get on any lists," he told her.

"I don't want my name to get on any lists," said this middle-class, white, over-70 year-old war-veteran. The patriotic American doesn't come with much more apple pie and ice-cream than Uncle Phil.

And yet he was frightened at the very thought of receiving in the mail a small newsletter that "they" — a government he despised — would disaprove of.

Fear is the other side of the fascist's blade.

I mention these personal anecdotes because my talk with my father helped to wake me up to the fact that I had been falling victim to the first strategy. (Yes, I know, I'm a Canuck and some will say it's not my fight anyway; but I think both the fact that I am a human being, as well as a pragmatic one, the thought that my 35 million fellow-citizens live right next door to the behemoth gives me an interest in what happens there, if not a vote.)

Speaking truth to liars (and dupes)


The other single thing which helped to rouse me from my slumber was an article by the writer Sara Robinson entitled "Is the U.S. on the brink of fascism?" — an essay I commend to your attention but which I will quote from here.

Robinson's essay is a scary but, I think, well-reasoned piece which lays out a strong case to suggest that the absolutely hysterical campaign to destroy Obama's health-care bill is not in fact simply the ravings of a few professional talk-show instigators like the Fox News gang and some groups of loud, simple-minded angry white men (and women), but part of an orchestrated campaign of what is now an alliance between the far-right and the "mainstream" conservatives of the Republican Party.

"An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black"

Robinson's definition of fascism is precise and — particularly because the terms, fascist and fascism tend to be thrown around far too casually by the left (as are the terms socialist and socialism by the right — though lately, those using the latter include members of the media and political elites who don't have the excuse that they are just ranting among friends or fellow-travellers on the internet) and so should be repeated, if only to make it clear that I am not one to smear just anyone as a fascist simply because I disagree with them.

The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as [historian Robert] Paxton points out, "Everybody is somebody else's fascist." Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:

"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline."

Elsewhere, he refines this further as:

"a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

According to Robinson (pace Paxton), those democracies which have fallen to fascist movements have done so in five stages. Briefly, they are as follows (again, I highly recommend reading the full essay). Note: The italics below are mine.

  1. "In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal [...] They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion." The fascist narrative varies but is "always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery [...]"

  2. "In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country [...] these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us."

  3. The third stage requires a resurgent left which denies the conservatives their "rightful" seat at the table of power, leading to a political deadlock. "The most important variables...are the conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate." (Paxton.)

    "That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can't win elections or policy fights, they're more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity."

  4. "In stage four, as [the alliance of conservative elites and rural thugs] assumes full control of the country [...] The character of the regime is determined by [which wing of the alliance] gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time."

  5. "Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization or entropy." Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)"

What's happening, what is to be done?

I said above that I don't toss about the term fascist casually, but despite Robinson's hesitations about so defining the former Bush administration that way, its well-known disdain for the rule of law, its utter disregard for the well-being of its own citizens (remember what happened to New Orleans in August of 2005?), its love of torture and military adventures abroad already had me believing that Bush and Cheney et al were at least fellow-travellers.

As Robinson puts it,

Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We've seen Armey's own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We've seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to "a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress."

This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won't do their political or economic bidding.

These are scary times, for Americans in particular, but nearly as much for the rest of us in the "free world". As the richest, most powerful nation on the face of the Earth, the United States has the potential to be a force for great good or for great evil.

As Robinson says, it's not yet (quite) too late to stop the madness.

If you're frightened now, think how frightened you'll be if the worst comes to pass. The time to speak up, to write letters and to demonstrate, is now.

If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process all together, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.

We have both a moral obligation, and a pragmatic one, to stand up and be counted.

The voices of the lunatic right are not yet an organized army of brown-shirts, but the thinly-veiled racism and homophobia of the "birthers" and those who take seriously Sarah Palin's fantasies that Obama wants to kill her baby need to be countered, the coals of paranoia must be doused before they burst into an unstoppable inferno of hatred and fear.

I know, to some of you at least, I am the one who sounds paranoid, but the historical parallels are too stark to be ignored. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wake up from a nightmare some years down the road to tell my grandchildren that I did nothing to stop it when I had the chance.

Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor
True North Perspective

14 August 2009 — Return to cover.