Saturday, May 11, 2013
They Scare Me: My Fear of Fascism in America
At the end of each academic year, when I see my students' final essays and research papers, I have time to reflect more deeply on the material that I teach and how it is interpreted by my students and related to their own experiences of life and their own views of the world that we live in. As my students come mainly from lower and middle class backgrounds, I feel they afford me a fairly representative window on the state of mind of Middle America. Not the elite, more liberal and cosmopolitan America of privileged enclaves on the east or west coast, but the more conservative America of less cosmopolitan, more average and ordinary Americans. And every year, what I see when I peer into this collective mentality scares me.
In teaching a World History class that surveys the interaction of civilizations and peoples around the world from about the Renaissance onward, a major theme I try to convey is the huge and continuing impact of colonialism. I strive to explain that the West greatly benefitted from the centuries of colonialism, including the long period of African enslavement, while other regions suffered, and that even the supposed end of colonialism in the 20th century has not meant an end of Western control over and meddling in other regions, with the post-WW II and even moreso, the post-Cold War political and economic order paving the way for substantial corporate control over many nations and their resources, amounting to a new type of colonialism, a corporate colonialism, with America now the inheritor of the mantle of colonial master-in-chief. When we get to the end of the course, I attempt to impress upon my students that resentment toward colonialism, and toward America in its role as global military enforcer of the current, corporate business-centered order, is a key factor that inspires and drives international terrorism, such as the 9/11 attack and other radical Islamist actions. I talk about how the American government, through its military forces, through the CIA, and most recently, through remote controlled drone attacks has often used force against other countries, including assassination, and that this is part of what motivates people around the world to dislike, resent and even hate America to the point of engaging in violence.
Furthermore, I tell my students that we are in a very dangerous time. If we Americans continue on the path laid down by Bush and largely continued by Obama of using force against an ever-expanding range of terrorist targets around the world, meaning that we kill and terrorize ever growing numbers of people through what we believe to be legitimate anti-terrorist actions, we will run the perpetual risk of simply inciting more acts of violence by people seeking revenge against us for acts of violence that we have perpetrated against them. By killing terrorists we will create them. Witness our killing of Osama bin Laden. That really stopped Islamic terrorism once and for all, didn't it?
I comment that a cycle of bloody revenge can become a self-perpetuating dynamic that can go on for decades or centuries, and I ask my students if this is what they want for America and the world. I tell them of the simple but important concept of "blowback" as something that we Americans should take more seriously. We cannot simply use force around the world as often as we like, set up military bases everywhere, send our troops and CIA everywhere, and expect everyone else in the world to cooperate and agree with us and love us unconditionally and never get upset with us, never disagree with us, and never strike back against us. That is unrealistic and short-sighted, but it seems to remain the guiding principle of American foreign policy.
I suggest to my students that there could be an alternative path for America to follow in its relations with other countries. America could try to treat other countries with more respect, withdraw our military forces from places where they are not welcome, and negotiate with countries or groups that we have tensions with. In my view, this would greatly reduce the risk of perpetual terrorist blowback and revenge cycles. However, REAL negotiation has become fairly alien to American foreign policy. What passes for "negotiation" these days is American representatives telling other governments or groups what they must do to avoid brutal punishment from us, including economic sanctions that can cause as much suffering and death as military invasions. That is not negotiating; that is just a slightly diplomatic form of bullying. Real negotiation would mean sitting down at the table as equals, saying here are our priorities, our needs, and listening to those of the other side as well, and then trying to work out a deal.
I would like to think I am a fairly insightful observer and a somewhat persuasive advocate for my ideas, but when I see my students' views on world affairs as expressed in their end-of-term papers, I realize I am sadly mistaken about my ability to make a dent in the view of the world that many of my students seem to share. After all the discussion of colonialism, the resentment of foreign domination resulting in terrorist blowback and the dangers of an American foreign policy resting mainly on the use of military force, what I hear from my students is that colonialism is all over, terrorists and Islam are evil,and that America must continue to use military force to "protect our freedom."
I am struck that the young of America have been very effectively brainwashed into this simplistic, militaristic, pro-bully, anti-terrorist, anti-Muslim view of the world. From the coverage of the tragedy of 9/11 that never really looked hard at other countries' and peoples' grievances against the USA to President Bush hailing "Mission Accomplished" about our great work in Iraq to President Obama's celebration of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, from the long-running television drama "24" to "Zero Dark Thirty," the recent cinematic tribute to the CIA, to the military and to the use of torture, to the paucity of voices in the news media, even the so-called "liberal media," questioning our militaristic foreign policy, to the proliferation of video games that train people in the visceral pleasures of blowing away your enemies, there is little that lone educators like me can do to resist the overwhelmingly militaristic and jingoistic mentality reigning in America. I hope to plant a few seeds of critical thinking here and there, inspire a few students to imagine something more than endless war as the natural order of things, but it may be useless. I will keep trying but without great confidence that I am achieving much.
Something else I teach about in presenting the history of the 20th century is Fascism. For most of my students and I would imagine for the vast majority of Americans, Fascism is something that they confidently believe has been dead and buried since World War II. Yes, Hitler and Mussolini were bad and the Holocaust was horrible, but it is all over now,they would say if asked. If only I could take refuge in a similar belief that the world has truly closed the book on Fascism! Instead, I fear that Fascism is reviving and that it now waves a red, white and blue flag. Obviously, this is not the exact same thing as German Nazism or Italian Fascism or any of the other extreme right-wing movements that afflicted Europe in the 1920s and 30s. I know that the original Nazi movement is gone. I know that Mussolini is dead. But I see certain trends and tendencies, certain preferences, that to me seem strongly reminiscent of Fascism in 21st century America.
Fascism is actually quite hard to define, as anyone who has investigated the scholarly literature can attest. As a professor teaching introductory course, however, I have to find simple, direct ways of defining and explaining things. I therefore have come to understand Fascism as a style of social organization, and indeed a view of the world, simultaneously both a way of being and a way of thinking that is centered on the use of brute force to attain and maintain authority and dominance. On top of this there is typically overlaid an ideology of extreme nationalism, with intensive devotion to the flag and other patriotic symbols, but I think the raw love of brutality is really the more fundamental feature. What serves brutality is valued above all, and so there is a powerful devotion to weapons, to soldiers, to policemen, to any thing, person or social institution that is related to the use of violence. In fact, it might be said that the ideology of nationalism is just a means to the end of the worship of violence; that the love of the nation or the flag is just the excuse for enjoying hating, shooting and killing the enemies of the flag and feeling really really great about being really really brutal. Nazis were extremely patriotic, let's not forget. They really loved their flag, their nation, their uniforms, their military, their Fuhrer, and they felt perfectly justified in using force against others and invading and attacking other countries.
Loving violence (think video games and action movies). Respecting brutality (note the rising popularity of super-violent sports like mixed martial arts and cage fighting). Glorifying professional agents of violence (endless proclamations in the media and our politicians that soldiers, policemen and trained assassins like Special Ops soldiers and CIA agents are the finest Americans). Assuming that our country is always justified in using force (think of the Iraq and Afghan wars,the drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, "war games" training exercises and military maneuvers right on the borders of Iran and North Korea, and many of our politicians not wanting to limit America's freedom to use military force by signing international treaties or submitting to any kind of international authority). This is America today. Is this also Fascism? I fear that it might be, or if not, something disturbingly similar.
It is late now, and I am tired. It is dark out and it seems dark in here too. Perhaps in the morning when the sun is shining and I can smell spring blossoms on the breeze I will feel differently, but I doubt it. I have been watching this train rolling down the tracks for a long time, and I know it is going to keep on coming. The train is called America, and it scares me.
Still, history is full of surprises. Things can turn and change quite suddenly. All that seems solid can crumble unexpectedly. No one saw the Fall of the Berlin Wall coming, nor the Tiananmen Square protests. Maybe the forces of Fascism can yet be derailed. I do hope so, and I would like to see Paganism as part of that effort, hence my call for non-violent, non-militaristic, non-nationalistic, pro-ecological, and pro-artistic forms of Paganism. The same tendencies should be applauded among other forms of religion as well.