OPINION

That’s the trouble with abusing the f-word

Take away from fascism the cult of war, and you’re left with some costume-clad buffoons

ANDREW POTTER January 21 2008
OPINION

That’s the trouble with abusing the f-word

Take away from fascism the cult of war, and you’re left with some costume-clad buffoons

ANDREW POTTER January 21 2008

That’s the trouble with abusing the f-word

Take away from fascism the cult of war, and you’re left with some costume-clad buffoons

ANDREW POTTER

One of the more useful bits of Internet folk wisdom is the following maxim: the longer an online discussion grows, the higher the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler. Coined by online activist

and lawyer Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s Law holds true across all media: given any political debate of sufficient length, sooner or later someone will accuse his opponent of being a fascist.

Given the overheated partisan character of our political culture, it is not surprising to find the “f-word” making its way into the salons of even the most respectable members of society. Among the left, it is uncontroversial to assert that George W. Bush is a fascist. That’s because he is a puppet of the religious right, which is also made up of fascists, as Chris Hedges tells us in his recent book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. For neo-conservatives and imperial-minded liberals such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, it is al-Qaeda and the Taliban who are the real fascists, religious zealots who have turned the worship of Allah into an “Islamofascist” cult of death. And let us not forget the eco-fascists, a term used by conservatives and market-oriented liberals to describe the more narrow tributaries of contemporary environmentalism.

Which brings us to Jonah Goldberg, author of the new book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Goldberg is probably most familiar to Canadians as the slurpeesucking chicken hawk who, in 2002, turned Pat Buchanan’s slur about “Soviet Canuckistan” into a full-bore rant. In his National Review essay, “Bomb Canada: The case for war,” he argued that Canada’s “neurotic antiAmericanism”—traditionally manifested through policies such as single-payer health care, parliamentary democracy, and the pay-

ing of UN membership dues—had become a genuine threat to the security of the U.S. Hence the title of the essay.

Goldberg has clearly spent the past five years or so stewing over the American left (or “liberals,” as lefties are known down there), which he believes has unfairly appropriated the term “fascist” as a cudgel with which to beat conservatives. Looking back over the 20th century, Goldberg sees that it is liberals, not conservatives, who are the real heirs to the fascist tradition in America. From Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda ministry and FDR’s militia-like Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the cult of personality surrounding John F. Kennedy, America’s progressives have consistently wrapped them-

selves in the language, symbols, and policies of fascism. As well they might, argues Goldberg, since modern liberalism and classical fascism have common intellectual origins. Both have faith in the power of the state as a progressive force, and hold similar positions on a range of issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. And let’s not forget—Hitler was a vegetarian and the Nazis were world leaders in organic farming.

Despite his tendency to see creeping fascism behind every tree hugger, Goldberg is a fun guy to read. He fires off a barrage of insults, comedic decoys that help distract the reader from the pockmarked logic underlying his argument. But he confuses fascism’s socialist origins with its final essence. In Italy, for

example, fascism certainly began as a socialist cause but fell far short of a serious ideological commitment. Mussolini liked to brag that he was not tied to any specific doctrine, an intellectual promiscuity he attributed to self-salvation: “With ideas as with women, the more you love them the more they make you suffer.”

The effect of fascism was to transform politics from something based on reasoned argument over principles into a visceral aesthetic experience. And as soon became apparent, the most profound aesthetic experience for a fascist was violence. This is why Goldberg’s imagined similarities between the uniformed members of the CCC and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, or between the statist policies of the New Deal and Hitler’s total command of the German economy, are preposterous. Fascists visited upon the citizens of the world a nightmare of uniformed violence, but the key element of the equation was not the uniforms—it was the violence. If you take away from fascism the cult of war, then all you’re left with are a bunch of costume-clad buffoons chanting slogans— something that would turn every highschool pep rally into the moral equivalent of Kristallnacht.

What is ultimately at stake here is the integrity of our vocabulary. As our society has evolved we’ve forged a number of moral concepts that help us make sense of what is going on—words that point to types of discrimination, like racism and sexism, or that are meant to engage our most profound sense of revulsion, like holocaust and genocide. But words are only useful as contrastive terms, and if every inter-ethnic or interracial war counts as a genocide, then the word ceases to have any meaning.

So Jonah Goldberg has a point. If we allow

ourselves to call “fascist” every politician or party that we find revolting, then we are depriving ourselves of a very useful concept. But the solution to partisan idiocy is not more partisan idiocy—all things said and done, FDR was no more a fascist than George W. Bush is a terrorist. Fascism was the defining ideological development of the 20th century, and the more we use it as a weapon against our petty opponents, the more we dull our ability to understand how and why it occurred. If we lose that ability, we risk being caught off guard when an authentic form of fascism arises to threaten us once again. M

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Potter, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewpotter u