Memorial Day 2016

Memorial Day 2016

Memorial Day 2016

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  1. With all due respect, I thought there were some words and phrases with such specificity of meaning that one ought to avoid using them except in the clearest, inarguable cases, words and phrases like “war criminal” and “fascism.” And that careless use of such words isn’t just a silly word choice gaffe, or a friendly game of political goat-getting, but a matter of grave importance, because if “war criminal” isn’t only used in just the correct way, for instance, then somehow the whole concept of “war criminality” is diluted to the point of absurdity, and there’s no difference between Mengele and Hillary until we come up with an even more dire appellation for Mengele. And then we must keep that word locked up in a box until the true spectre of war criminality raises its head again. Case in point, I should probably be wary of taking Seymour Hersh’s word that Hillary approved the delivery of sarin to Syrian rebels, or, even if not, maybe just avoid the whole “war criminal” thing where she’s concerned because Mengele > sarin, even if true.

    So, of course I thought the same reasoning applied to the inappropriate use of the word “fascism” because if we just start throwing it around willy-nilly to apply to politicians we don’t like, for instance, in the absence of actual brown shirts, long knives, and breaking glass, then we won’t have a real word left for an actual fascist when one shows up on the scene. I guess that’s kind of like “then the terrorists win.”

    Now, I realize that if I can dredge up two articles on the Internet, that’s hardly the same thing as making a study of an issue near and dear to my heart, but I’m doing the best I can over here to indulge the peculiar notion of “justified true belief,” and I work with what I can find. Beats going full pomo any day.

    Foreign Affairs has a piece up that’s a bit annoying to get to (one must register to read the freebie): American Caudillo: Trump and the Latin-Americanization of U.S. Politics (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-05-12/american-caudillo). I recommend jumping through the hoops as it’s a worthwhile read. It might even open the door to discussion about the overlap between Latin American machismo, traditionally Scottish notions of manhood, and the kind of American/Scots-Irish/WASP toxic masculinity Trump expresses. If there’s a whiff of Francisco Franco’s not-quite fascism there, well, caudillismo, not fascism. Or maybe there’s some Anglosplaining that we can spackle over the gaps and hope nobody notices.

    Vox also has a thought-provoking piece up: I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here’s what they said. (http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism). I have to confess. The point about fascism and the economy was challenging to me, as it relegates the relationship between economics and fascism to the bottom of the symptom list, maybe even off it altogether, which I find weird as a rank tyro because for the last 20+ years, whenever I’ve encountered discussions of fascism, the economic model (whichever best allows for government control) was pretty well side-by-side with lockstep mandatory conformity and violence as a defining feature. But what do I know? I also believed in unicorns and dictionaries until recently.

    I hardly see anything shocking to the sensibilities in these two articles. And as they are something of a distillation of the academic careers of a few well-pedigreed PhD’s, with or without a degree of controversy, I’m inclined to give them due consideration. Now, perhaps someone could come along and say, “I’ll see your experts and raise you mine,” and one could even make a compelling case, maybe, but then it’s not just a simple matter of positing “A because B,” but now also “and here’s why my argument is better than the gaggle of experts yon tyro dug up from the web.” I’ve got justified true belief to arrive at, and I’m going with what I see as the greater probability.

    I’d really hate to think I’m just overthinking this whole thing, and that this is really just another crass, pointless, historically incorrect bit of partisan venom absent solid substance, all on the backs of the dead servicemembers today is meant to commemorate, because coffins make fine bully pulpits. That would be a tactic worthy of “them,” as I understand it, a nomenclature reserved for the horribly wrong, benighted, unwashed lumpen not-quite-people things we disagree with. At least we know “them” when we see “them.” They carry poorly spelled signs that invite their opponents to literacy-shame them (because we still need some kind of down-punching victim shaming if we’re not to descend into pure chaos).

    • Frank, you are absolutely right that there are words we shouldn’t be using unless we are very confident that they’re accurate. As I’ve stated in another post, I feel that the term “fascist” is one of those terms, and I think I can make a strong argument for how this is the case with respect to Trump. I’m working on a post doing that very thing, but rather than asking you to wait for that (because that would be lame), I’d like to give you some of that rationale here and now.

      I like the characteristics of Ur-Fascism as defined by Umberto Eco, who as a boy lived under the Italian Fascists. The characteristics he defined in his 1995 essay for the New York Review of Books are summarized as follows:

      1. A cult of tradition based on the concept of revealed, primeval truth. (T)
      2. The rejection of modernism including the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason as the source of depravity, leading to irrationalism. (T)
      3. A cult of action for action’s sake, with the idea that thinking before you act is “a form of emasculation.” Anti-intellectualism. (T)
      4. The rejection of anything that encourages debate and disagreement, like science. (T)
      5. Racism. (T)
      6. An appeal to a frustrated middle class that is feeling humiliated and/or is suffering an economic crisis. (T)
      7. Nationalism as a replacement for privileges lost and an obsession with the idea that there are plots (foreign and/or domestic) against the Leader’s followers. (T)
      8. Feelings of humiliation due to the actions or status of other nations while simultaneously holding feelings that the other nations that have humiliated the followers can be crushed militarily. (T)
      9. Life is lived for struggle, for permanent warfare, and so anything that smacks of passivity is treason.
      10. Contempt by the strong for the weak and a strict hierarchy where the top tiers despise the lower tiers, and so on down the line until the common man who is despised most of all. Yet at the same time members of the party are the elite.
      11. Heroism as the norm rather than the exception, and a craving by all followers to be the hero, even up to the point of death as a way to achieve supernatural happiness.
      12. Machismo that implies general disdain for women and intolerance of nonstandard sexuality. (T)
      13. Selective populism whereby the People have the illusion of collective will while the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. This leads to the disparagement of democracy as being rotten and not representative of the will of the People. (T)
      14. Newspeak, in the sense of using simple vocabulary and syntax in order to restrict creative and critical thinking. (T)

      Eco wrote that “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” By my count, Trump has demonstrated some portion or all of 10-11 of the characteristics (all the parenthetical “T”s in the list above).

      That said, Eco wasn’t a historian – he was an author. There are other lists of characteristics collected by historians, and in most cases Trump has demonstrated a significant number of those characteristics as well. Trump has never checked off every single box on any list I’ve seen, but Eco’s essay makes a strong argument that we don’t need every single characteristic to call someone or some movement “fascist.” It is possible to mix and match to some extent and yet the core of fascism will remain.

      I’ve read the Vox article several times now. While the historians that Dylan Mathews contacted have certainly studied this subject more than I have, and as such deserve some deference, I have concerns with respect to some of their arguments. For example, Roger Griffin claims that his conception of palingenesis (rebirth of the nation) requires “a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation” and that Trump isn’t a fascist until he actually advocates for “the abolition of America’s democratic institutions.” My issue with this argument is that Trump actively support the militia and so-called patriot movements that have sprung up over the last eight years, and those movements yearn for a United States that has never actually existed except in fantasy. They’re yearning for a supposedly “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution that is nothing of the sort. So does Trump have to actively endorse the dissolution of America’s institutions to be a fascist, or is supporting those whose actions would lead to the dissolution of those institutions sufficient? I would guess that Griffin would say the former, but I don’t think that the answer is obvious.

      Furthermore, Trump meets the rest of Griffin’s definition: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.”

      The experts also identified “violence for its own sake” as a defining characteristic. This ties in with Eco’s point #11 above – everyone’s a hero and death is supernatural bliss. Trump courts people like LaVoy Finicum, who went into a confrontation with police where he invited his own death at the hands of the Oregon State Police as a martyr for the cause. A great many of Trump’s supporters are end-times fundamentalist Christians who believe that Armageddon will occur during their lifetimes and who support Israel because the return of the Jews to Jerusalem is a prerequisite for the Second Coming. And Trump has been tossing peaceful protesters out of his rallys and offering legal help to supporters who assult protesters. These don’t necessarily mean that Trump actually wants violence, but it’s about as close to outright support for violence as he can get without actual incitement, which is a crime and not protected by the First Amendment. As you yourself once pointed out, fascists could have learned from their own history and got smart about somethings. In this case, a smarter and media-savvy fascist could have figured out that incitement to violence got you arrested and locked up where you don’t get media attention while dog-whistles invoking violence generated much of the same fear and support while garnering massive media attention.

      These are a couple of examples of my issues with the article, but rather than getting bogged down in all of them in this comment, I’ll instead summarize by saying that the experts that Matthews contacted all seem to believe that fascism is ultimately tied to the political ideologies of the early 1900s. They seem to be in general agreement that no modern political movement that isn’t directly tied to those earlier ideologies can be called “fascism.” While I can see their point, I disagree with it. It strikes me that they’re demanding definitional purity on a topic that is, by everyone’s admission, very difficult to nail down.

      I have less to say about the caudillo piece, however. It’s further outside my own study of history. I find it interesting that it identified Franco’s Spain as not actually fascist, while most of the historians I’ve read on ID it as fascist, at least at the beginning. To me, the article’s describing aspects of strongman dictators and populists who, when you add other key characteristics like those identified by Eco, could easily transition from caudillos to fascists. I agree with the piece that Trump certainly qualifies as someone who fits the caudillo mold – the question is whether Trump is past that point or not. Clearly I think that, based on Eco’s characteristics, Trump is.

      One of the biggest reasons we study history is to recognize when we see similar movements in our own time and place. Donald Trump is without question the most dangerous presidential candidate the US has seen in my lifetime, and I could probably make a strong argument that he’s the most dangerous presidential candidate since the founding of the Republic. Simply being a populist demagogue who lies, supports violence, opposes the Constitution, manipulates the media, and so on would have made him that. But I think he’s crossed the line from a mere demagogue – he matches so many characteristics of Eco’s, meets so many aspects of the various definitions of “fascism” that I’ve studied, that I now consider him a fascist.

      You are, of course, free to disagree. But I think this makes it pretty clear that my use of the term in my photo was not merely a “crass, pointless, historically incorrect bit of partisan venom absent solid substance.”

      • I love your diligence, and appreciate the effort, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to stick with your exhortation in the last graf and disagree. My initial finding still stands. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I’m also not the dullest, and I’m detecting the motion of goal posts here.

        See, I have it on good authority that some words/phrases mean very specific things, neither more, nor less. For a person, place, or thing to merit one of these special words, said PP/T must meet some rigorous specifications. It does no good, then, to illustrate the point by trying to explain how, when meeting those rigorous specifications, one may indulge in varying degrees of interpretation, or in throwing many such interpreted things at the wall to see which ones stick.

        I get it. You think Trump is a fascist. You’re a smart guy. And you’re as subject to all manner of smart people biases as the rest of the smart people. At the end of the day, it just looks to me like it’s still coming from sentiment. Sentimentally labeling someone with this kind of very specific pejorative on the backs of our military dead on the day when we’re to remember and honor them meets all of my rigorous specifications for the kind of brutal observation I made.

        I might not be the kind of person that has lots of people show up at my funeral, but if, in the course of “honoring” me someone dares suppose it’s time to drag their personal view of politics into how I’m best honored, I swear I’m coming out of the coffin and whoopin’ someone’s ass. Just sayin’.