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More Clarifications

I guess I'm just in the mood to criticize other bloggers...

Yesterday I criticized Juan Cole's offhand assessment of the intellectual roots of the New Right as inaccurate. It wasn't a big criticism and isn't Dr. Cole's area of expertise anyway. I was also mildly put off that he went to such lengths to use socioeconomic explanations to account for discrepancies in conservative rhetoric whereas I found it easier to explain the dissonance simply in terms of political expediency. Really more of a clarification than a criticism.

Today a guest blogger over at Atrios, linked with high praise to another blogger writing about fascism. As I've said before, this subject fascinates me, despite the frequency with which the term is abused and incorrectly used, particularly by reactionaries on the Left. David Neiwert remains, in my mind, the best popular (if blogging can be characterized as such) writer on the subject, doing genuine research and reporting. He's read the academics, interviewed the principals in the American far Right and thus reaches the reasonable conclusion that American fascism is hardly a reality but that elements of the New Right, by mainstreaming themselves and gaining popular respectability, are poised to encourage a proto-fascistic movement from large constituencies of the GOP's conservative coalition.

The blogger linked at Atrios' blog, however, really is off the mark. Many on the Left who criticize the Right have the tendency to do so in psychological terms. This has been the case since conservatives were truly marginalized in the era of Liberal dominance (1932/6-1968). Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality, Hofstadter and Bell's analyses of the New Right and other liberal analysts of the time sought to explain conservatism in terms of psychological defect. Writing during the apogee of liberal hegemony, the "end of ideology," these thinkers sought to understand how anyone could hold radical conservative views in an era of consensus. With hindsight and a proper understanding of conservatism's criticisms, I think the psychological explanation explains very little. Yet this model of understanding conservatism--social science--persists to this very day with well-meaning books like Conservatives Without Conscience, which reach the right conclusions but base them on a less-than-convincing methodology. Arthur Silber, the blogger linked at Atrios' blog, adopts this approach and stretches it thinly to understand American fascism writ large.

Beginning with the fact that military recruitment shortfalls have led to relaxation of certain ethical standards, Silber suggests that this isn't an isolated phenomenon but an indicator of a much larger tendency towards fascism in American culture. His evidence are programs like 24, citing that

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a more repellent embodiment of vicious, revenge-driven, murderous male fantasies, replete with innumerable bloody deaths and even the noxious idea that torture "works." That last idea is indisputably false, but even Hillary Clinton now repeats the lies that inflict monstrous pain, and that ultimately kill. So much for "opposition" to the rising tide of barbarism. And series like 24 are the manure out of which grows our fascist future."

By contrast, here's how I described 24 in post from a couple weeks ago:
To the right-wing, apparently, the war on terror is like the television show 24. If you're unfamiliar with this taut and intense thriller, let me give you the basics. A counterterrorist specialist played by Kiefer Sutherland repeatedly finds himself in situations where time is constantly working against him. Terrorists are going to strike the United States in some fashion and he is running around the world trying to stop them without sleep, relieving bodily functions or recharging his cell phone. Over the course of his travails, the Sutherland character needs to get information. Often the people with this information are in jeopardy or recalcitrant. The Sutherland character must extract information from them with violence in some cases. All of this is graphically presented and happens so frequently that the Sutherland character has become addicted to drugs and constantly appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is silly but effective entertainment. The real world rarely works in this fashion. 24 is premised on the constraints of time, the "ticking time bomb scenario," if you will. There's simply no time to play nice with these terrorists. You gotta beat the information out of them, or drug them, or shoot them in the leg and tell them the next one's going in their head. Republicans in the real world think this sort of thing happens all the time. We're only one step ahead of the terrorists and there's simply no time to worry about things like habeas corpus or the legal rights of suspects. After all, they're bad guys; who cares if we torture them?

Like Silber, I acknowledge the violence, the simplemindedness of the show's premise and the fact that Republicans/conservatives tend to view the war on terror in this fashion. But Silber is convinced that the male revenge fantasy is the truly noxious side effect of 24, and actually bears responsibility for festering American fascism. His evidence?
"Tens of millions of Americans are being conditioned every day to view an incomprehensibly violent, utterly arbitrary militarized domestic state as representing "virtue," and indeed a necessary virtue: supposedly necessary to protect us from the enemy, who is now to be found everywhere. Perhaps it's your next-door neighbor. That day, too, may not be all that far away." (emphasis mine).

Anyone who has taken a mass communications 101 course knows that brainwashing a-la The Manchurian Candidate is bullshit. But that didn't stop the effectiveness of the movie. In Silber's analysis, The Machurian Candidate should have increased the amount of rancorous anti-communism felt in America at the time. I would find that a difficult hypothesis to test. Are television programs/video games/rock music really the cause of increased violence in society?

By focusing on this one indicator--male revenge fantasy types entering the military in large numbers--Silber seems convinced that American fascism in incipient. But other historical fascisms were not movements born from the ranks of the military. Those fascists challenged the state from without, not from within the government itself. Fascism results from breakdown of the political and economic systems of the state. That is when fascism becomes institutionalized. The United States is facing serious threats to long-term political and economic stability, which, if realized, could lead to genuine American fascism. But we're not there yet. I think rather than trying to understand the psychology of the fascist rank-and-file (who are likely too far gone anyway), we ought to look at potential institutional fissures which could make American fascism reality. It's not the Army that has failed, it is the political leadership. Decapitation is the first step to preventing America's decline into right-wing fantasyland.


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