Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stopping the slide into fascism

Barely a month into Barack Obama’s presidency, actor and far-right extremist Chuck Norris was calling for a “Second American Revolution,” advising military leaders to disregard Obama’s authority, intimated that there were thousands of right-wing sleeper cells ready to rise-up and retake the country—or else he would run for president of Texas (too bad Bruce Lee isn’t around to give Norris another tail-whipping like he did in “Return of the Dragon”). Norris is the kind of extremist mentality that exemplifies the Tea Party movement, which right out the gate saw a scary black Robin Hood, stealing from “virtuous” whites and giving to “indolent” blacks and browns; to tea-partiers, taxes and budget deficits are means to achieve that end, which is why they oppose them so vociferously. When it comes right down to it, that is the principle conspiracy theory motivating the tea-partiers; to deny this is to ignore the fact of the almost immediate spike in anti-Obama rhetoric that brushed aside his stated wish for toning down the partisan fighting. The attempt to de-legitimatize the Obama presidency began even before he took the oath of office. That this had a racial angle cannot be dismissed as easily as the CNN and the rest of the craven media has; it goes without saying that Fox News has exploited the racial fears of its constituency.

A book published last year, “The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk has Radicalized the American Right” by David Neiwert, speaks to the current movement toward the segregation of society along racial, political and class lines. Neiwert employs the term “eliminationism” to describe the method in which the Hannitys, Becks, Savages, Coulters, Malkins and Limbaughs of the world have helped create a culture of division that dispenses with reasoned dialogue and seeks to suppress or eliminate all opposing sides of a discussion—and even seeks to “eliminate” those who offer opposing ideas. In a nutshell, the new right and its Tea Party constituency has wholly anti-democratic views. Rather than offer constructive solutions to the country’s problems through bi-partisan means, they seek to destroy the “enemy,” especially if they happen to have dark skin like Obama. There is no such thing as “fellow Americans” to these people; you are either American or anti-American. That the right is increasingly displaying anti-democratic—and thus anti-American—tendencies seems to have escaped the attention of the media, and most of the general public.

Neiwert points out that much of the current right-wing rhetoric has disturbing fascist tendencies. There is the tendency to use terms glorifying violence, such as what we hear from Sarah Palin and the anti-Latino immigration advocates; the suggestion of racial superiority, and that the dominate group is being “victimized” by liberalism and alien peoples; the desire of greater homogeneity in both group dynamics and political, social and economic philosophy that naturally benefits only the dominate group. Paranoia, xenophobia and liberal conspiracies (particularly those which relate to income “redistribution”) populate the minds of those most susceptible to this kind of thinking.

Obama and the Democrats failure to counter the eliminationist agenda—thus allowing themselves to be more susceptible to de facto “elimination”—mirrors that which took down Germany’s Weimar Republic, and led to the rise of the Nazis. In the first book of his three volume set on the history of the Third Reich, Richard J. Evans points out that the factors that undermined liberals ability to counteract fascism could be traced to their failure to oppose “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck’s ruthless policies to suppress so-called “enemies of the state,” which amounted to nothing less than a massive assault on civil liberties. Liberals supported anti-Catholic measures, mainly because they saw Catholics—who constituted forty percent of the German population—as a serious threat to “civilization” because of their alleged greater allegiance to the Pope rather than the state. Liberals thus earned the enmity of Catholics who thereafter sought to “prove” their loyalty to the state rather than serve as a bulwark against moral and ethical digressions. Liberals also failed to oppose Bismarck’s anti-Socialist law, which further eroded political and civil freedoms. As Evans notes, “Once more, the liberals were persuaded to abandon their liberal principles in what was presented to them as the national interest.” In effect, liberals left themselves with little credibility and support when it came to mustering popular opposition to the Nazis.

The principle left-wing “opposition” party to the Nazi’s was the Social Democratic Party, which like the current Democratic Party in the U.S. was deemed too “radical” by nationalist and monarchists despite the fact it seemed to do its level best not to “rock the boat” and upset too many people. V.I. Lenin mocked the SDP, declaring that “The German Social Democrats would never launch a successful revolution in Germany because when it came to storm the railway stations, they would line-up in order to buy platform tickets first.” The SDP was also hampered by its failure to achieve some common ground with the Communist Party—much like the divide between the Democratic establishment, progressives and young voters who expected immediate, yet undefined, “change.” Rather than take bold measures, the SDP “acquired the habit of waiting for things to happen, rather than acting to bring them about.” While the Obama administration has some modest accomplishments to its credit, like the health care bill and finance reform, it lost much political capital by its drawn-out attempt to “accommodate” Republicans bent on obstruction; fearful of “rocking the boat,” Obama and the Democrats have been loath to take decisive action using the authority they had. Instead of groveling to the insurance industry and bowing to right-wing extremists, the simple step of budget reconciliation could have led to Medicare for the uninsured, and could have been done in weeks instead of months, and be much more defensible than the confusing health care “reform” bill that did emerge. In end, the administration and Congress only appeared indecisive and largely inactive.

Obama’s problems as president also has some parallels to that of Friedrich Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic. Ebert sought a smooth transition from the deposed monarchy to a democratic state, but undermined his position almost immediately by failing to purge the military of anti-democratic elements. His willingness to compromise with ultra conservatives failed to win him friends amongst that element, much as Obama has failed to win “friends” among Republicans who wanted all or nothing in exchange for their “friendship.” And, as Evans notes, Ebert was (as Obama is) subjected to a “remorseless” campaign of vilification and smears from the right-wing press, further undermining his ability to govern effectively. Ebert spent a great deal of time defending himself from the smears, to little avail:

“In a criminal trial held in 1924, in which an accused charged with calling Ebert a traitor to his country, the court fined the man the token sum of 10 marks because, as it concluded, Ebert had indeed shown himself to be a traitor by maintaining contacts with striking munitions workers in Berlin in the last year of the war (although he had in fact done so in order to bring the strike to a rapid, negotiated end).” Obama, of course, has also been accused of being a “traitor” for “undermining” the “values” of the country by supporting the rights of labor--and other things, like being a secret Muslim terrorist.

The second (and last) president of the Weimar Republic was former WWI field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who was, like George W. Bush, “impatient with the complexities of political events and more susceptible to the influence of his inner circle of advisers, all of whom adhered to the old order. He had no intention of defending democratic institutions from its enemies.” And ultimately neither did labor unions; when the Nazis seemed to be on the verge of seizing total power after Hindenburg and his “inner circle” foolishly gave Adolf Hitler the chancellorship, unions accommodated themselves to the Nazis—which only accomplished their rapid destruction.

The Nazi take-over might yet have been averted if chancellor Heinrich Bruning had, during the Great Depression, taken measures to relieve the general suffering, as many in the German legislature, the Reichstag, supported. Despite the fact that the reparations payments stipulated by the Versailles Treaty had been suspended, Bruning was still loath to raise taxes, or use the extra funds to stimulate job creation, because he feared the kind of smear campaign that Ebert had endured from the right-wing extremist press. The failure to act inevitably led to the destruction of German democracy, especially when the 1933 legislative elections put a plurality of anti-democratic Nazis in office. The passage of the “Enabling Act” in 1933, which allowed Hitler to issue decrees in direct contravention of the constitution, effectively killed democratic institutions. The legislature had already been violently purged of opponents of the act, but SDP chairman Otto Wels did bravely rise in opposition. After noting that the Weimar regime had brought about equal opportunity, social welfare programs and allowed Germany to be an seen as an honest partner in the international community once more, he went on to say that

“In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly profess our allegiance to the basic principles of humanity, justice and freedom…No Enabling Law gives you the right to annihilate ideas that are eternal and indestructible…We greet the persecuted and the hard-pressed. Their steadfastness and loyalty deserve our admiration. The courage of their convictions, their unbroken confidence, vouch for a brighter future.”

The Nazi response was to mock and deride. Human and civil rights was anathema to the Nazi philosophy, but on the other hand liberals and democrats had dug their own grave and deserved the mocking; Wels’ discovery of principle came much too late in the day. Joseph Goebbels contemptuously remarked that “You only have to bare your teeth at the reds (meaning anyone on the left) and they knuckle under.” Part of this lack of backbone could be blamed on constant threat of violence from the Nazi’s brown-shirted storm troopers; despite the reality that they were the principle cause of public disorder, violence and mayhem, anti-left propaganda successfully placed the perception in the minds of the populace that it was the Communists who were to blame.

In 1933, the Nazis projected the image of decisiveness and the “cult” of leadership—despite the fact that they offered only a purposely vague program based on nationalism, slogans and popular prejudices, especially against Jews and other “inferior” groups. Perhaps if Germans had known what was to come, we may conjecture that they would have been less eager for Nazi rule; but there is every indication that the average German was enamored with the Nazis’ racial and nationalistic propaganda, and would not believe anyone was capable of such future atrocities. The Nazi’s economic policies were also without form until their complete take-over the country; within a few years, the economy would be almost wholly geared to preparing the country for war.

Are there similarities between the rise of the Nazis and the rise of the “new” right as exemplified by the Tea Party movement and the right-wing hate talk media that drives it? It seems clear enough that the Democratic Party, like the SDP, has failed to forcefully defend its alleged principles and counteract the right’s propaganda of jingoism, prejudice and paranoia. Republicans were on the ropes after the 2008 election, but Democrats failed to take advantage of the situation by being disorganized and divided. Instead allowing the Republicans to remain marginalized (and leaving the Tea Party movement marginalized as a lunatic, racist fringe) while pursuing major policy initiatives and fostering the image of being strong and decisive, the Obama administration chose to accommodate the reactionary ideas of Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats, to mostly unpromising if not disastrous results.

What comes next? The Tea Party is clearly a behind-the-scenes Republican-germinated movement fueled by hate talk radio, Fox News, and the “mainstream” media that chooses to inflate it instead of taking a critical look at it. Republicans sought to use the “movement” as cover so that they would not be specifically identified with its extremism; that a few establishment Republicans have succumbed to Tea Party candidates might suggest that the Republican leadership has lost control of the movement. There is also some suggestion that the hate talk personalities have lost control of it as well; when Sean Hannity told a group of tea-partiers that they were all Timothy McVeigh wannabes, he didn’t expect them to agree that they were. But the Tea Party mentality is already well-represented by the likes of Republicans like John Boehner, Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, who like that constituency are fulsome in what they are against—taxes and government—and utterly devoid of a vision for the future, let alone ideas to tackle current problems beyond the simplistic propaganda that fuels white paranoia. Even Newt Gingrich, who claims to be non-partisan, revealed himself recently to be just another right-wing extremist when he supporting the ignorant conspiracy theories applied to Obama by Dinesh D’Souza, who should be better known for his racism.

A Republican take-over at this critical time can mean either one of two things: showing themselves to be mere political opportunists who really don’t have a plan save enriching themselves and their friends—or drift the country into a version of fascism, using racial fears of Obama and Latino immigrants as a scapegoat to rationalize policies that further erode civil rights, widen the income disparities and creating a country further divided between “real” Americans, and those who allegedly are not, just as the Nazis declared anyone who was not Aryan was not German—justifying all manner of inequity along racial and class lines. The failure of the right to control the extremism of the Tea Party movement, and the mainstream media's failure to expose it, may make some element of fascism inevitable. Only rational voters now have the power to stop the slide. Will they do it?

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