Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, September 07, 2004
Disagreement is Treason

Brian Leiter, prompted by Jessica Wilson, who was prompted by an essay at That Good Night, wonders whether recent events in the U.S. can usefully be thought of as proto-fascist. Specifically, are there interesting parallels between the U.S. today and Germany in the 1930's? Let me go out on a limb here and provide a straightforward answer: yes and no.

"No", in that I think there is essentially zero danger of the U.S. transforming into a fascist dictatorship any time in the foreseeable future. For one thing, as wrong-headed as they may be, nobody in the Bush administration actually wants to overthrow democracy. (Okay, maybe Ashcroft, but he's only one guy.) It's true that they want to paint everything in black and white and portray any kind of disagreement as treasonous, but that's not enough to qualify as fascism. More importantly, democratic ideals are simply too deeply ingrained in U.S. society to allow any realistic chance of transforming into a dictatorship.

So, one's first response is to think that even asking the question is somewhat alarmist, if not hysterical. But we should keep in mind that historical fascism was quite popular at certain times in certain places, and it's perfectly reasonable to ask whether the impulses that led to some of the dramatic movements of the past are at work in our present situation. In a more recent post Leiter points to this short essay by Umberto Eco, discussing the universal characteristics of fascist societies. I have to say, some of the features Eco identifies are uncomfortably familiar. For a while now, like many other liberals, I've been trying to understand how any reasonable person could possibly support the current administration, which makes wrong choices nearly every time by any sensible criteria. Of course there are many answers to this question, but I think one huge factor (reflected quite explicitly in the campaign rhetoric) is the valorization of certainty (or "decisiveness") over nuance or complexity ("flip-flopping"). There seems to be a strong feeling among Bush supporters that taking a definitive stand is more important that what that stand is. I don't mean to be condescending, but this point of view is so alien to me that I can't really do it justice. To these people, the war in Iraq was justified because Saddam was our enemy, regardless of the absence of weapons of mass destruction or any connection between Iraq and 9/11. It is taken as a sign of strength, rather than a bumbling approach to diplomacy, that our nominal allies are predominantly aligned against us across a range of foreign-policy questions. It is to these people that Dick Cheney's smirks at Kerry's "sensitive war on terror" are directed -- in this view, the last thing you want to do in a war on terror is to understand the minds of the enemy.

To get back on track: Eco makes a strong case that a main theme of fascism is to establish a comfortable zone of certainty in which dissent, and even ambiguity, are considered traitorous. It is a feeling fed by resentment, both of ruling elites generally and of intellectuals in particular. You can see how such a stance might be compelling -- it feels good to be a virtuous Everyman, defending one's way of life against enemies at home and abroad. In a complicated world, there is comfort to be found in leaning on simple, strong, patriotic truths, whether decorating the town with American flags or lashing out with the armed forces. When Ann Coulter labels liberals as treasonous, or Zell Miller gives soldiers credit for freedom of speech, or Rick Santorum demonizes gays and atheists, they are appealing to exactly this feeling of unreflective anger.

After reading Eco's essay, I am no more convinced than before that we are in any danger of becoming a fascist state, but I do think that the underlying principles of proto-fascism have something important in common with the motivating philosophies of the Bush administration. It explains much of what is otherwise confusing about Bush's policies, especially to more libertarian-leaning conservatives. From the crusade against gay marriages, to the dramatic undermining of independent scientific advisory councils in policy making, to the cheerful disregard of judicial due process, to the sanguine acceptance of budget deficits and protectionist trade policies, we see a consistent appeal to a resentful and frustrated middle class.

There is a danger in throwing around scare words like "fascism", that we will denigrate the level of political discourse even further. But we shouldn't forget that historical fascism really was attractive to a large number of people, and for strong reasons; it's not impermissible (yet) to think soberly about what those reasons were, and what relationship they have to political currents that still run strongly today.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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