Lefties, and Commies, and Nazis! Oh my!

Feb 22, 2011   //   Tolerance

Perhaps it is not too much to hope for the three wishes of Dorothy’s companions: A Brain to think about what we say; A Heart toward our fellow humanity; and the Courage to accept that we are but one human race with diversity having common needs.

David Niewert, in his work The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (ref) (ref), a central source for this article and a recommended read, makes the point that the term ‘fascism’ has become nearly useless over the past 30 years.  Both liberals, in the 60′s and 70′s, and today conservatives (especially the Tea Party crowd) have so loosely used the term that its original meaning as ‘a very distinct political style, if not quite philosophy’, has become completely muddled within the broader context of totalitarianism (ref chap. 6).

The point is nicely made by examination of placards displayed at Tea Party rallies that depict president Obama as  being both a communist and a Nazi fascist complete with a Hitler-style mustache and Swastika.  The same duality has been made by conservative talk show pundits Rush Limbaugh (ref) (ref) and Glenn Beck (ref) (ref).  This indeed does give our president a broad range of political positions.  In the left-right political spectrum communism and socialism are typically placed to the left and fascism is placed on the right (ref), with scholars being in general agreement that fascism resides on the far right (ref).  The Nazi regime actually considered communism a primary enemy of Germany, that it was a Jewish strategy to subjugate Germany to the world, and leftist political dissidents were amongst the first victims targeted and liquidated by the Nazi fascists, much before racial discrimination was applied (ref).

Such reckless comparisons support the contentions of those like Frank Rich (ref), Jacob Weisberg (ref) and this writer that the red-hot anger/rage that has been expressed at Tea Party rallies, such as at the healthcare reform protests, is unfocused, unreasoned and not about specific legislation or fixing what is broken.  It is about conservative America raging against a changing America; and it is important to note how this is reflected in its language and behavior.  Tea Party proponents claim that they want to take their country back (ref), that they are ‘the true owners of the United States’ and have a ‘common belief in the values which made and keep [their] beloved nation great’ (ref).   And this rage has become ‘more free floating – more likely to claim minorities like gays Latinos and Muslims as collateral damage… [a rage that] will lash out at any convenient scapegoat’ (ref).  This rage and nationalistic language, accompanied with terror tactics including numerous death threats, acts of vandalism, displays of weaponry, assaults, and ethnic identity, all fueled by hate-mongering over the airwaves, are not new in our history nor the history of other countries in the 20th century.

In regard to the above, as well as a propensity on the Right these days to engage in revisionist history, e.g. our founding fathers ‘worked tirelessly…until slavery was extinguished’ and John Quincy Adams as a founding father (he was a generation removed, the son of John Adams) (ref), replacing slave trade with the term Atlantic Triangular Trade in history books (ref), that life during the Civil Rights era in Mississippi wasn’t ‘that bad’ (ref), etc., I thought it timely do a piece on fascism.  It might hopefully cause a bit of introspection in those who so carelessly throw the term about.  The forces (passions) that underlie the development of fascism exist today just as they have in the past, not only abroad but within our own country.

Understanding Fascism

Although there is scholarly consensus that fascism was influenced by both left and right elements of the political spectrum, it is normally described as being on the extreme right (ref).  There has been considerable debate as to its nature and whether it is even a coherent ideology (ref), some claiming that it is not a real ideology at all but rather a form of irrational and opportunistic politics committed to nihilistic violence.  Attempts to define it often leave it muddled with other forms of totalitarianism and it is often examined in its fully developed form rather than understanding the underlying forces that created the state.  Although fascism shares similarities with other forms of totalitarianism, it is a specific species of totalitarianism and it is important to understand the conditions that carried it to power.

The primary source for this section will be Chapters 1 and 6 in Niewert’s The Eliminationists and supplemented where indicated.  Niewert cites Pierre-Andre Taguieff, a French specialist on the extreme right as having said: “Neither ‘fascism’ nor ‘racism’ will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily”.  For that reason, it is important to understand not what fascism’s final product looks like, but rather the traits/forces/passions that bring it to power.

Fascism is best understood as a ‘political pathology’, a constellation of traits that taken individually are innocuous enough, but taken together bring the entity into focus.  The picture most hold of Nazi fascism is that of its mature state with brown-shirted, goose-stepping goons, concentration camps and extermination of millions of human beings.  This state did not appear overnight, but rather developed over time as part of a process driven by multiple ‘passions’.  Robert Griffin (Oxford Brookes University professor of history) in his 1991 text, The Nature of Fascism, defined the core of fascism as ‘palingenetic ultranationalist populism’ – palingenetic being a mythic rebirth like the Phoenix rising from the ashes – and offered the following definition:

“Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity.  Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy….As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence”.

Using this definition, an ultranationalism resides at fascism’s core, a renewal of a country’s political culture, a ‘national rebirth’ that fuses the myth of ‘traditional values’ with modern idealism.  Paxton claims that ‘fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion…in order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty, for better or for worse’.  And fascism separates itself from most other kinds of politics in that is not about thought; it is unreasoned, ‘anti-intellectual’ and comes from the gut – what Mussolini’s official philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, described as “We think with our blood”.

Niewert further cites Paxton as describing nine ‘mobilizing passions’ that “form the emotional lava that set fascism’s foundation”.  Although too much to get into here (but certainly worth the read in Niewert’s work), the trajectory can be somewhat simplified.  Those that do not fit with the political and ethnic identity of the nationalistic rebirth are identified as enemies and dialog ceases.  The enemy is then scapegoated, becoming the cause of problems and a threat to the culture and state.  The ‘enemy’ is dehumanized through hate language and hate-mongering leading to ‘eliminationism’ – “a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue 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”.  The rhetoric typically depicts the ‘enemy’ as vermin, especially rats and cockroaches, disease-like cancers, as traitors or criminals that pose a threat to national security.  Goldhagan, in his work Hitler’s Willing Executioners describes ‘eliminationist antisemitism’ as being the driving force behind the Holocaust, “particularly…the willing participation of the ‘ordinary’ citizenry in so many murderous acts, as well as the hatemongering that precipitate those acts”.  Indeed it is the dehumanization of others through hate language and hate-mongering that is central to the ability of individuals to not only commit, but to watch and condone, the physical and emotional suffering (including death) inflicted by hate crimes against humanity.

Violence and terror tactics are accepted as being necessary to rid the country and culture of those who would destroy it.  Armed militias form as the enforcers and have a characteristic uniform; in Nazi Germany it was Brown Shirts, fascist Italy had Mussolini’s Black Shirts, and even in the US during the 1930′s there were the Silver Shirts, an American fascist organization headed by William Dudley Pelley whose ambition was to become dictator of the United States (ref).  And another, the Ku Klux Klan, that will be discussed later in this article, had its white hooded robes.

Nazi Fascism

There are two points to this section.  First, it will show that the development of the Nazi fascist state, as described in review articles, followed the process described in Niewert’s work.  Secondly, the positions and actions of Nazi Germany on issues such as homosexuality, female reproductive rights, and its approach to welfare, leaves little doubt as to why Nazi fascism tends to be placed on the far right of the political spectrum.

The Treaty of Versailles, one of the peace treaties at the end of WWI, was the source of a deep wounding of German national pride and was broadly unpopular with the German public.  It required Germany to accept sole responsibility for causing the war, to disarm, make territorial concessions, and pay heavy reparations to other countries (ref).  The ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, widely believed in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, held that Germany really did not lose WWI but was rather betrayed by civilians on the home front, especially politicians who overthrew the monarchy; these Government leaders were denounced as the ‘November Criminals’ (ref).  The Nazi Party, that gained in popular support when the Great Depression hit Germany, depicted the democratic Weimar coalition as a “morass of corruption, degeneracy, national humiliation, ruthless persecution of the honest national opposition”.

The Nazis promoted a socially conservative view (ref) believing that a reivindication of a glorious past was the key to a glorious future (the rebirth).  Nazi rule was characterized by a racial nationalism that was anti-Marxist, anti-semetic, and anti-democratic.  Hitler’s objective as a politician was to restore the dignity of the German nation.  As such, multiple elements of German society were targeted as not only fitting the true Aryan culture (ref), but needed to be ‘eliminated’ as part of the purification process as they were deemed a threat to the health of that culture and state.  Included in this list of the persecuted were (ref) Jews, socialists, Marxists, homosexuals, Germans with mental and physical disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and (ref) feminists. Additionally, this social conservatism included persecution of so-called degenerate art, rejected youth sex, prostitution, pornography, and ‘sexual vice’, and was marked by anti-intellectualism.  Smoking, drinking and use of cosmetics were discouraged (ref).

Although many aspects of Nazi rule could be discussed, I will focus on three that are pertinent to today’s left-right politics in this country; portrayal of homosexuals, anti-feminism including dictating female reproductive rights, and the welfare state.  The agenda with these issues is hardly anything that can be ascribed to the left in today’s politics.

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum created an exhibit on this topic (ref).  The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the more than one million German men who were portrayed as carrying a “degeneracy” that threatened the “disciplined masculinity” of Germany.  Gays were denounced as “anti-social parasites” and as “enemies of the state”.  More than 100,000 gays were arrested, 50,000 of these men served prison terms as convicted homosexuals, and an unknown number were institutionalized in mental hospitals, and others – perhaps hundreds – were castrated under court order or coercion.  Thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps where many died from starvation, disease, beatings and murder.  The Nazi state, through active persecution, attempted to terrorize German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity.   Lesbians were not systematically persecuted under Nazi rule because they were valued primarily for their ability to bear children.

Anti-Feminism and Female Reproductive Rights

Hitler believed that the emancipation of women was invented by Jewish intellectuals and that for the German woman her “world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home” (ref).  Not only were women removed from professional and civil servant careers, they were believed to be unfit for jury duty because they were unable to “think logically or reason objectively, since they are ruled only by emotion”.  Noted feminists fled the country when the Nazis came to power including Helene Stocker (ref) and Clara Zetkin (ref) who was politically active and had represented her party in the Reichstag between 1920-1933.  Female reproductive rights were dictated following the maxim that “Your body does not belong to you”.  This included not only the forced sterilization program that was signed into law by Hitler himself in 1933 (ref) as part of eugenics where even teachers were ordered to identify students who might have “damaged genes” (ref), but where abortion was outlawed in ‘genetically fit’ women.  Family planning clinics were shut down, often on the grounds of alleged ties with communism.  Abortion in “suitable women” and even its facilitation were, in general, serious criminal offenses in Nazi Germany; a network of spies and secret police sought out abortionists, and prosecutions were frequent.  By 1943 the penalty for performing an abortion on a “genetically fit” woman was death’ (ref).  Women arrested for performing abortions were labelled “professional criminals” for accepting pay for an illegal activity (ref).

Nazi Social Welfare

Although fascists promoted social welfare to ameliorate economic conditions affecting their nation or race as a whole, they did not support social welfare for egalitarian reasons.  The Nazis created social welfare to deal with the large number of unemployed, but these programs were not universal in their application, ‘excluding multiple minority groups and certain other people whom they felt were incapable of helping themselves and pose a threat to the future health of the German people’ (ref).

Can Fascism Happen Here?

Primary sources for this section include Niewert’s work, The Eliminationists, (Chapter 6) and a review article of the Ku Klux Klan (ref).  These have been supplemented where indicated.

Niewert cites Paxton as making the point that the Ku Klux Klan may be the earliest phenomenon that can be ‘functionally related’ to fascism.  There were three distinct periods of the Klan.  The first flourished in the South in the immediate post-Civil War years.  The second flourished nationwide in the early and mid 1920′s, and the third emerged after WWII in opposition to the civil rights movement and progress among minorities.  The second period was impressive in its scope.  At its height in the mid-1920′s it claimed to include 15% of the nation’s eligible population, about 4-5 million men.  The Klan briefly became a national organization with chapters in all 48 states and was politically influential in several including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Maine where it supported Owen Brewster in his successful election to Governor in 1924 (ref) (for those interested, the same Senator Brewster in the film The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio).   In 1922 the Klan helped elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California and Oregon and came close to ousting Jim Reed (MO) from the US Senate; additionally it was reported that perhaps as many as 75 members of the lower house had received help from Klan votes (ref).

Per Niewert, the Klan was characterized by David Chalmers as a ‘revitalization movement’.  Its goal was to enforce, through force and terror tactics, what it referred to as “traditional values” and “100 percent Americanism”.  The Klan was about an ultranationalism, a calling back to a mythic depiction of the America of the founding fathers.  An internet search has provided examples of the nationalistic imagery used to promote the organization.   The July 1924 cover of The Good Citizen (ref), a publication that was a strong supporter of the Klan, displays a hooded Klansman flying the American flag, ringing the Liberty Bell, and that included pictures of a founding father (George Washington), and the ‘Holy Bible’ – all reflective of the ‘traditional values’ and ’100 percent Americanism’ the organization claimed to represent.

Similarly, a book of Klan sheet music portrays a number of hooded Klansmen fronted by Uncle Sam with his American outfit holding the American flag, and entitled “We Are All Loyal Klansmen”.

Although the post-civil war movement focused on blacks as not being part of their ‘traditional’ American culture, Chalmers detailed the expanded scope of its enemies in the 1920′s.  Added to African Americans were Jews, Orientals, Roman Catholics, aliens/immigrants, (Gays have also made the list (ref) ) as well as drugs, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital ‘goings-on’, and scandal – all became the concern of the ’100% American’.  These ‘community values’ became the justification for all kinds of violence, including lynchings, beatings, and murder, directed not only at blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, but sometimes white, Protestant females at times if it was felt that they had been engaged in immoral behavior.  The Klan supported prohibition, engaged in anti-union activities, and formed operational associations with European fascists which included a number of Nazi ‘front’ organizations.

The use of force and terror as a means to their end was also reflected in their blatant display of weaponry.  Niewert cites Chalmers as describing how Col. William Simmons, a key figure in the revival of the Klan in the early 20th century, addressed himself to a Klan gathering by placing a Colt automatic, another revolver, and a cartridge belt onto a table and then plunged a Bowie knife into the table saying “Now let the niggers, Catholics, Jews, and all the others who disdain my imperial wizardry, come on…”.  Displays of weaponry by the Klan as part of their terror tactics, including its paramilitary operations, has been detailed by Southern Poverty Law Center’s Morris Dees in his work A Lawyer’s Journey,  and a search of the internet readily reveals pictures of Klansmen bearing arms, one of whom can be seen at this attached link bearing an assault rifle (ref).  And to complete the picture, the Klan had its uniform, a hooded white robe, that was intended to induce terror into the enemies of its 100% Americanism, just as the Brown Shirts and Black Shirts terrorized the ‘enemies’ of the European fascist states in the 1930′s and 1940′s.

Discussion

Niewert cites Paxton as describing five stages in ‘fascism’s arc of flight’, the first being the creation of the movement and the second its rooting in the political system.   Fascism has typically failed in the US, France and elsewhere at the second stage for a few reasons.  First, fascism often fails to become a cohesive political entity, and once in office its proponents abandon the initial ideology that took them to office – it becomes difficult to espouse one official ideology to the exclusion of any other ‘ideas deemed alien or divisive’ in a broader body politic.  Secondly, it has met with bad timing in the US.  Niewert points out that FDR’s ascendant liberalism in the 1930′s ‘squeezed the life out of the nascent fascist elements’; FDR ‘effectively shared power with the Right which had no incentive to form a coalition with fascists’; and FDR’s New Deal program made inroads into rural areas where fascism took root in Europe.  And in the 1990′s when proto-fascism reemerged and armed anti-government militias were on the rise, e.g., The Patriots, the conservatives were in charge of both Houses and did not need to share power, and the country was enjoying a booming economy.  What pushed fascism into the second stage of power in Europe was the organized ‘thuggery’ against liberals and leftists in Germany and Italy.  German strikes were broken by vigilantes who were armed and abetted by local army authorities, and in Italy it was Mussolini’s Black Shirts that filled the void left by the liberal Italian state that could not enforce order and struck down the farm-worker unions.

In this writer’s opinion, the underlying forces at the root of fascism have been a regrettable part of the human condition over the centuries where mankind engages in eliminationism to segregate and even destroy others who do not think, believe, or look the same.  It is, at its root, unreasoned and anti-intellectual; intolerance driven by fear – and fear can be so easily manipulated for political and financial gain.  In the past it was not necessary for mainstream conservative politicians to form alliances with right-wing extremism. However, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell now find themselves in the position of having to appease an anti-government, highly socially conservative movement, that took their party back to power in the lower House and that could very well be the driver for retaking the majority in the Senate in 2012.  A movement that has been characterized by hundreds of percent increases in death threats to the president and elected officials, a rise in anti-government militias, weaponry appearing at public forums, candidates that have espoused dismantling the Department of Education and unraveling Civil Rights Law, restricting the rights of women regarding their own body, engaging in homophobic and Islamaphobic rhetoric, engaging in union-bashing/anti-labor legislation, and espousing the need to ‘take our country back’ and embrace the traditional values of our founding fathers.

It is time to take the Swastika and mustache off the president.  The ethnic and social exclusionary ideology and practices of Nazi fascism hardly fit the inclusionary practices espoused by the president and, more broadly, the left. And for those who recklessly throw the term about, perhaps some introspection would be in order.  As noted in a published review, “Niewert goes out of his way, repeatedly, to point out that America is in no way in the throes of true fascism…some of the criteria… remain clearly unmet.  But that ‘permission’ factor, the precursor that hate language brings, is most certainly present” (ref).  One of the great values of history is to learn from the past.  Thus the danger in today’s revisionist history.  And it is the intellectual laziness of those who simply listen to what reinforces their beliefs and biases that opens the door for punditry to play upon irrational fear for political and financial gain; hate-mongering that fosters a hostile environment (ref) towards both government and segments of our society.

Going back to the title of this article, perhaps it is not too much to hope for the three wishes of Dorothy’s companions: A Brain with which to reason; A Heart toward our fellow humanity; and the Courage to accept that we are but one human race with diversity (ref) having common needs.

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