The smart course of action is usually to be conservative with hot-button words, I think. Simply don't surrender to the temptation to use the word fascism to describe what's going on in America today.
But that isn't quite right, either. There are lots of fascist tendencies out and about. And I'm defining fascism as the ideology that suggests you can have what you want and you don't need to worry about telling lies and smearing and any other nefarious means to get what you want. It's not just when you march into Poland that you become fascist. It begins when you knowingly misrepresent the truth and when you begin to take more pleasure in winning against a foe than you do in being objective, generous, compassionate or fair.
Fascism is generally defined as “a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology” but also as:
1. An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.
2. (in general use) Extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice.
By that latter definition we’re already there, in the now mainstream Republican party and the Republican theocracy they are working toward. Many of the people in the once conservative, now reactionary, party of the right, right up to the top with Romney and other Republican contenders like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, have endorsed the view that the Bible should supersede the Constitution. And leaders of the Roman Catholic hierarchy such as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and his right hand at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Joseph Kurtz now openly insist it is their religious right to take actions that would overrule the wishes of non-catholic Americans – and they are endorsed not only by those on the right but many in the middle, as well. Evangelicals have been arguing openly and loudly for a long time that the separation of church and state is a myth, and you know what kind of theocracy they would establish if they were able.
The danger in suggesting there is something fascist about these moves by newly emboldened and heavy-handed religious bullies is that one can lose credibility. We're not ready to think of our religious leaders in that light. And, to be fair, it would also not be technically correct. Whatever the rightists in our midst are up to, we as a country are not yet fascist. Only some of the country leans in that direction, and because our media are now so unreliable we have no way of really knowing how much of the country is actually in that number. And we need to distinguish those who are genuinely fascist by nature from those too dumb to realize the work they perform as fascist enablers. People who routinely throw their support behind authoritarians because they promise they will keep you safe better than the other guy - and for less money. People who might, with some effort, be persuaded to become better informed. Polls are fingers in the wind, and not reliable measures of people’s convictions.
We have to be careful not to speak of fascism as a fully-formed American value system. But we also, I think, need to keep an eye on fascism in the making. Right Wing Watch does that. Others do, as well.
What makes me queasy, though, is the evidence that the institutions necessary for democracy to work are breaking down. We don’t know how to evaluate this phenomenon we call the “dumbing down.” We just note how often people say wild and crazy things, things that cannot be proven, and how often lies are put out there, and not just by politicians, and exposed – and then things go on as if the exposure never took place. People act as if the truth doesn’t matter. The postmodern theory has become reality – we believe not what is, but what we want things to be.
In this morning’s news is the story of well-known Scottish historian Niall Ferguson’s blatant disregard for facts in a Newsweek article. Here you have a Harvard/Oxford/Stanford professor of history who writes for a popular American magazine without a fact-checker and flings factoids out there to serve political purposes. It’s little bits like this that scare me and that bring to mind the concept of proto-fascism. Fans of Ferguson would probably call it just another illustration of his “interesting” non-traditional approach to history. I suspect Ferguson would sneer at any suggestion that his British contrarian ways – one has to remember Christopher Hitchens this way, as well – could ever be associated with fascism, even indirectly, and I think he’d be right. But there’s still the disregard for facts to contend with.
The examples of media distortions are legion – from FOX on down. But even more troubling, to me, is the evidence that the educational system is breaking (or has broken) down. A friend called my attention to an adjunct professor in Philadelphia who blogs her complaints about the state of higher education, with special focus on the gap between the folks in the trenches – the adjunct professors – and the corporate executives who now collect six, sometimes seven-figure salaries paid with funds that once might have gone to students, faculty, research or curriculum. The Chronicle of Higher Education also regularly carries stories of this breakdown from other perspectives, such as this one.
Check out the web page of a documentary being made to call attention to the plight of higher education in America. As a member of this class of folk, I can attest personally to the veracity of the claims. In fact, the main reason I made the choice to teach in Japan was that I couldn’t see myself living on an annual salary of $24,000 teaching in America. True, full professors get much more than that, and if I had gone into computer science, law or medicine, rather than education, I might have made it here in this country. But isn’t that the point. We don’t value the field of education as a professional calling. Even at Stanford, the School of Education was referred to as “the low rent district.” We didn’t mind, because there was something terribly satisfying about just being there in that lofty environment and about thinking lofty thoughts about joining a noble profession. But that was before our careers started. The dreamy naïveté didn’t last.
In any case, check out this teacher’s lament.
And check out the documentary in the making.
The blurb from that reads:
Political Scientists and Policy Analysts are saying that American public higher education has entered a "death spiral", which signals not only the ruination of the American university system, but of democracy itself. Gone are the days when public higher education was viewed as a public good; the entire system has been under attack by the same elitist powers that have been causing a wider ruination of the middle class.
Media, education, the political system itself… Once democratic institutions start breaking down there is little to nothing left to resist fascism. Citizens United shows we can’t count on the Supreme Court. Sheldon Adelson can make billions from gambling by teaming up with Chinese gangsters in Macao and then funnel that money into one-man support for Newt Gingrich’s candidacy for president – and now he pools it with other funds for Mitt Romney. And Obama has spent a third of a billion dollars as well, just on the campaign, and we’re not close to done with the fundraising. How many other examples do you need to show corruption of government is now virtually total?
So be careful, I tell myself, about using the term fascism in regard to the shambles of American democracy.
But keep your eye on the trajectory.