Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Growing Threat Posed by the Big Stick of Fascism

By Bob Ferris
Maria Altmann with a reproduction of the Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt. 
Carlene and I watched “Woman in Gold” this past weekend and found it an emotionally rewarding movie.  The film was complex and there was certainly a lot to take in.  One scene that stuck me hard might have been lost on many.  It was the short bit where the random man approached Helen Mirren’s character (Maria Altmann) and said something to the effect that it wasn’t always about the Holocaust.  The action was simultaneously a spiteful denial and a demonstration that the underlying evil and hatred was not gone but only hidden…waiting.

This scene was powerful because of its meaning and relevance.  How, for instance, is this stubborn hatred so different than the Confederate flag debate and the steeping bigotry we see in this country (1,2,3)?  Moreover, how dissimilar is the Nazi propaganda about the Jews or Communists and their role in the economic misery of the 1930s and 1940s from the myths that are currently being promulgated in this country about blacks, immigrants, food stamp recipients, and union members?

The Nazis had a well-developed propaganda machine that created these fables and also fashioned or enabled hatred on a massive scale to distract the masses from the fiscal culpability of the greedy and shortsighted.  This myth engine also manufactured a psychological umbrella to insulate the rightfully angry from feeling remorse or compassion for taking out their aggressions on these surrogate targets.  And if the public was reticent to act in the way their Nazi manipulators wanted them to, catalysts were provided in the form of the SS, the para-military Brown Shirts or Hitler Youth to show them what to do and how to do it.

People mobilized by false narratives often dress up which provides then a sense of belonging and insulates them from the illogical nature of their acts.
These are obvious, distasteful, and extreme examples, but really how different are many of the Tea Party folks from those in Nazi-era Germany who fully embraced a set of falsehoods and then acted on them?  And what about comparisons that could be made between the Brown Shirts and this current crop of conservative militias and hate groups?  Is it so absolutely surprising that the swastika is so often a totem for these groups?  Coincidence?

Taken in total there is reason for true concern regarding this pattern and the involved players here in the US.   While it is hard to tell exactly how far along this path towards Fascism we have been pushed and prodded, our spider sense should be jiggling as we see massive amounts of resources as well as concerted political effort expended to inoculate us with a set of false and supremely hypocritical narratives.  A prime example was Charles Koch’s recent claim that he and his allies’ efforts to buy political influence to create a less regulated landscape for their own benefit was like the civil rights movement or efforts to stop slavery.  Really?

Anti-intellectualism comes in many forms.
The above combined with the political rhetoric—often reinforced by religious leaders or groups—is winding ever tighter the mainspring of hatred against the groups mentioned above as well as gays and intellectuals (1,2,3). As a scientist I find this latter attack extremely troubling as there is an eerie historic echo to stunts like snowballs on the Senate floor or Creationist museums—compete with humans riding dinosaurs—that bring to mind the smell of burning books.  That this Mein Kampf-style of anti-intellectualism is frequently practiced by those evoking our intellectually-overachieving Founding Fathers (1,2) is a disconnect of stunning magnitude.  (In this it is important to note that those funding the politicians, the climate denial machine and the more conservative Christian groups are largely the same actors.)

Hatred is always a key component of a path towards Fascism as anger is redirected at specific targets and away from those responsible for the anger.   
Roughly 25 years ago I had a rare opportunity to spend an extended period of time with the late Arne Naess the Norwegian philosopher and father of Deep Ecology.  We talked about a lot of diverse topics during our time together and we eventually talked about World War II and how Europe allowed what eventually happened.  I kept coming back to the issue with him about not why it was bad, but why wasn’t it nipped in the bud and stopped before sixty million souls died globally including nearly 6 million Jews and 500,000 Americans.  I never really got a satisfactory answer, but I think it is an important question.

Just as we are likely at a tipping point in terms of climate change, it strikes me that we face similar peril in our political system.  If we do not act now during this current 2016 election cycle and reclaim the balance we once enjoyed and that made us strong as a nation, I am not sure how else short of collapse or revolution we will ever gain the needed course corrections.  In this we cannot with any degree of rationality expect that elected officials groomed and nurtured under the very system that needs correcting or those surreptitiously supported by those steadfastly embracing the status quo will suddenly decide that the hand that feeds them now is not their best bet for a meal moving forward.
In yet another sign that rising income inequality is unsettling our nation, the SEC ruled that starting in 2017 most publicly traded companies must identify and disclose how much CEOs make relative to the median salary of rank-and-file employees (from AFSME).

I do not play the Hitler card easily or often because of the seriousness of the reference and the consequences of evoking it casually, but we have allowed far, far too much of what we originally fought the Revolution for to creep back into our system.  What we need now is a serious set of political pliers to extract all of it.  The pliers should be employed to do the following work on behalf of We the People:
- Stop money from equaling political power and look for ways to get people to the polls rather than having an element of our political system stay awake thinking of clever ways to disenfranchise Americans.  
- Reverse those actions taken over the last 50 years that have shifted assets from the middle class to the super rich and fostered a landscape where CEO pay has climbed at roughly ten times the rate of the average worker.  
- Honor education and the educated again and provide easy and inexpensive avenues for our brightest to become even brighter as the dividends are much greater than the cost.  
- Clarify once again that freedom of religion means that folks in the US are free to practice their own religions personally, but in order to do that governance must be free of religion.  
- Re-Cronkite our media and create a public understanding of the difference between facts and opinions as well as where both are used most appropriately.  
- Make it clear that public good and welfare should take priority over corporate profits or the pocketbooks of a narrow sector of society.  

Arne Naess in a fighting pose.
There are more but to bring this full circle I will end here with a story about Dr. Naess and a lesson he taught me.  I love the above picture of Arne because during the first week of our short association we were camping in Baja California with a collection of graduate students on a trip organized by Michael Soule.  Every time that we came together for a campfire discussion Arne would sit behind me and poke me with a stick.  I asked him repeatedly to stop because the humor of it soon wore off.  Finally, I cornered him and he told me that he was just trying to make me mad enough to hit him because I reminded him some of Ingemar Johansson the Swedish boxer also known as the Hammer of Thor.  Arne told me that he had once been in the ring with Ingemar and he just wanted to remember the feeling of being hit really, really hard.  As I did not want to be known for the rest of my career as the ecologist who killed the father of Deep Ecology we discussed the situation setting clear boundaries and expectations.  We were both better for the experience.

All of us—well, at least 99 percent of us—have been poked hard with a “big stick” repeatedly and we need to tell those poking us that we have had enough.  Hopefully we will benefit from history and do what Arne’s generation was unable to do: Recognize this pattern of misinformation, misdirected hatred and manipulation for what it is and control it before it gets out of hand.  The consequences if we do not are inconceivable.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Bob, and scarily accurate on all points.