What About Fascism?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Oct 19, 2009 at 12:02:22 PM EST
I recently wrote here and at Daily Kos about the important, but often underappreciated differences between demonization and incivility in our political culture, (with particular regard to the way that the excesses of the Religious Right are often buried under a mound of false equivalence with elements of the left.)  At the time, I had in my the back of my mind my soon to be published interview with David Neiwert, author of the recent book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.  The interview is now posted over at the webzine, Religion Dispatches.  

What follows, is my introduction to our interview:

On Thursday, September 17, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was moving through a typical press briefing when she was asked about the escalation of violent rhetoric in public discourse. The California Democrat suddenly became uncharacteristically emotional, requesting that people tone it down and recalling the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk as an outgrowth of the hate-filled discourse of its time. Warning that people might have to "take responsibility for any incitement that [the person's words] may cause," Pelosi could scarcely have come up with a better example to illustrate a major theme of David Neiwert's latest book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.

There has been much discussion of the culture of incivility lately, epitomized by the recent indecorous outbursts of Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson (R-SC) during President Obama's speech to a joint session of congress, tennis star Serena Williams to a linesman at the U.S. Open, and rapper Kayne West at the Video Music Awards. But the rhetoric and the underlying attitudes that Neiwert is getting at are far more serious--and harder to come to grips with--than mere boorish behavior by public figures.
"What motivates this kind of talk and behavior," Neiwert writes of the sometimes surprising viciousness from otherwise ordinary people, "is called eliminationism: a politics and a culture that shuns dialog and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination."

Neiwert is a veteran journalist who has covered some of the farthest reaches of the American Right in the Pacific Northwest--including the Aryan Nations and the Montana Freemen. He was raised in Idaho, where the fervent factions of the far right--most notably the John Birch Society--were fashionable and intersected the lives of friends, family and neighbors. The ideas in this book were developed in an influential series of essays at his blog Orcinus (Neiwert is also managing editor of Crooks and Liars where these issues are often discussed as well).

Neiwert stresses that eliminationist rhetoric "always depicts its opposition as beyond the pale, the embodiment of evil itself, unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus worthy of elimination. It often further depicts its designated Enemy as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and disease-like cancers on the body politic. A close corollary--but not as nakedly eliminationist--is the claim that opponents are traitors or criminals and that they pose a threat to our national security."

"The history of eliminationism in America and elsewhere," he writes, "shows that rhetoric plays a significant role in the travesties that follow. It creates permission for people to act out in ways they might not otherwise. It allows them to abrogate their own humanity by denying the humanity of people deemed undesirable or a cultural contaminant."

Much of the book is devoted to outlining eliminationism in American history, from Native Americans and African Americans, through Chinese and Japanese immigrants and more. He shows how eliminationist rhetoric was often followed by "an actual campaign of violent eliminationism."

This history is presented with a note of urgency, because the eliminationist rhetoric as currently featured by elements of the conservative movement, "is in many ways," he stresses, "the signature feature of fascism." An authentic, broad based fascist movement is not here yet, he avers, though he warns that eliminationist rhetoric is not unlike "the distinct odor of burning flesh. And when it hits our nostrils, we dare not ignore the warning."

Neiwert guides us through some of the current thinking about the definition of fascism, and offers some useful ways to recognize it in a contemporary American context, showing how these elements are increasingly featured by the conservative movement on the airwaves and on the ground.

The Christian Patriot movement, which was largely synonymous with the militia movement of the 1990s, had three signature characteristics, according to scholar James Alfred Aho, as cited by Neiwert:

First, there's dualism, or the division of reality into a "godly" spiritual realm, in which lies the "perfect," and a corrupt material world, which is "profanity, unconsciousness and death." Second, there's "conspiratorialism" or "the psychologizing of historical events to the conscious intentions and omniscient and all-powerful Benefactors and Malefactors." This mix reduces the causes of perceived social decline into a quest for scapegoats in need of elimination. And third, there's the apocalyptic belief in the imminent end of the world as we know it.

Drawing on scholars of fascism Robert O. Paxton and Roger Griffin he outlines the features of fascist movements and the environments in which they rise. While elements of fascism are evident, he does not yet see the presence of a significant movement in the U.S. Notably absent is a "crisis of democracy" such that an ill-defined hyper-nationalism could rise in service of a national "renewal." Although Neiwert emphasizes that fascism emerges from the far right in the wake of the failure of democratic institutions--part of what makes it at once so hard to define, yet so explosive, is its lack of a "core ideology." Rather, it rallies around emotionalism.

Quoting Paxton, he writes that if fascism happens here, it will be distinctly American and devoid of the trappings of 20th century European fascism:

Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national regeneration, unification and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State (crèches on the lawns, prayers in the schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

That said, Neiwert slams those who misuse the term for "cheap political theater," writing that "inappropriate comparisons tend to obscure the reality of what's taking place."

So what is the reality?

Find out what Dave Neiwert thinks is the reality about fascism in America in the interview that follows this introduction.


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