Monday, April 19, 2004

Who’s a Fascist?

It’s an epithet we toss around pretty easily because it’s the ultimate political insult. But what does the word mean and does it apply to our current situation? This article in Salon.com by Laura Miller takes a look at the word and what it means historically and today.

In today’s ever more polarized political climate, “fascist,” the accusation, is making a comeback. Plug the word into Google and the first item you get is an essay by Anis Shivani titled “Is America Becoming Fascist?” in which the chief argument seems to be that if “left-liberals” don’t take the question very seriously, the answer must be yes. Two entries submitted to a MoveOn contest seeking ads that “tell the truth” about George W. Bush compared the president to Adolf Hitler, providing right-wing pundits with another luscious opportunity to play martyr to a gang of slanderous leftist know-nothings. How could anyone reasonably propose such a comparison, the right demands; how can anyone not, cries Shivani with equal fervor, since the “similarities” are so “remarkable”?

Neither side sheds very much light on exactly what a fascist is and how such a person or regime might be identified; it’s assumed everyone already knows. In truth, the introduction of Hitler into most conversations is a sign that passions have flared to a point that civility has become impossible. (Hence, Godwin’s famous Law of Nazi Analogies, formulated by Internet free-speech advocate Mike Godwin to describe particularly heated exchanges: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one” — that is, becomes inevitable.) “Hitler was a vegetarian!” is only the most gratuitous example of this sort of gambit.

It turns out, though, that even those who have devoted themselves to studying fascism can’t quite agree on what it is. Robert O. Paxton, a former professor of social sciences at Columbia University and longtime historian of the political movement, sets out to formulate a working definition in his new book, “The Anatomy of Fascism.” According to Paxton, there have only been two true fascist regimes, Nazi Germany and Italy under Mussolini, the man who gave fascism its name. And some of what you think you know about them is wrong.

Given the nation’s short attention span (quick, who did Trump hire as his “Apprentice?”), using bumperstickers makes it easy to toss around labels our opponents or allies. But calling anyone we don’t agree with a “Fascist” wears off rather quickly, and also diminishes the history of the word. George W. Bush is no more like Hitler on his global desires for democracy than Osama bin Laden is like Mahatma Gandhi seeking religious freedom for his people. Likening to two for political or blogging expediency just makes it harder to be heard over the din.