“You’re a Fascist!” “No, YOU’RE a Fascist!”

“You may have noticed that I’ve been busy writing post-length responses to comments on yesterday’s offering, so this post is impromptu. Longer explorations are in development.

New ShrinkWrapped commenter Matt wrote in a reasoned tone and actually made an argument, offered distinctions.

The clouds lift, the sun shines, the sweet smell of reason rises up from the soft petals.

Matt offers that the accusation of fascist against Barack Obama does not disturb him as much as the same accusation against George W. Bush. He finds the difference in a distinction – the basis on which the charge is leveled. Accusations against Bush, Matt says, were based on the disfavored “outcome” of his policies. The accusations against Obama are based on the legality of his policies.

This is a meaningful attempt at distinction. However, it does not hold up, and even if it did, it would not justify the charge of fascist in either case.

The definition of “fascist” is slippery. That is one reason the term is these days bandied about so loosely. Many conservatives are even now fond of conflating it with “socialist.” In the exercise of reason, beware of attempts to muddy, even eliminate distinctions rather than make them. The latter is a natural expression of logic in the mind; the former is emblematic of consciously and unconsciously fallacious argumentation. The next time someone informs you that the German NAZI Party was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party offer to buy him a ticket to the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea.

Historically, we have not designated national movements as fascist based on their violation of national law. Among the features of well-known German, Italian, and Spanish fascism were authoritarianism (not totalitarianism) joined with heightened, ideologically rationalized chauvinism, variant forms of state capitalism, and persecution of dissidents. Outcome certainly is a consideration, though not definitive, and many conservative critics of Obama do, in fact, assail him based on their fear of outcome.

Matt does not say whether he is a lawyer. I suspect not, and I am not. He and I may both think we have a good layperson’s knowledge of the law, but we are not lawyers, constitutional or other, and that needs to be acknowledged.

Charges of illegality have become commonplace on both sides of the political divide. It is just as much the generic “boo” of disapproval that Matt says liberal charges of fascism against Bush were. Illegal is practically a Homeric epithet for leftists denouncing the Iraq War. Matt claims, “There is a cogent legal argument for enhanced interrogation.” I and many, many others, including real lawyers, constitutional and international law experts, quite disagree. I believe the NSA wiretaps conducted without FISA court approval were illegal. I and many others believe that it is not “beyond the legal power of congress to enact” the current healthcare legislation. I wrote a satirical post the other day about people not knowing what they’re talking about a good deal of the time. Many conservatives like to proclaim the violation of constitution and founding spirit of the individual mandate component of the new legislation. Jeff Weintraub has been collecting examples of such mandates – even for health care, even signed into law by founders – from the early republic.

My point is that disputes about legality are part of the contention of democracy, and there is a process for pursuing and adjudicating those disputes. One court very recently weighed in against non-FISA wiretaps. To presume, as those on both sides have done, that one’s own sense of what is legal, one’s own declaration of legality, is definitive outside of that process – even if one is a lawyer – is to place oneself above  the foundation or our democratic processes. Of course, we all have opinions, and we may even disagree with ultimate, Supreme Court decisions, but we are supposed to respect them (as in acknowledge the force of their process), and it is already a potentially destabilizing act when one begins to challenge the course and outcome of constitutional process.

We all have our opinions, more and less informed and authoritative, but with the proper humility in those opinions, and recognition of democratic contentions and processes, we will understand that at every turn there will be citizens among us discontented by some policy and believing some acts of government to be beyond its power in law. It is for this reason that the principle of judicial review is propounded.

The illegality of a government act is not historically definitive of fascism, not remotely, and there will always be those among the discontented who believe the policy with which they disagree is determinative in the end of democracy. But to believe in democracy is to believe in its processes. Labeling a president as fascist because one dislikes his policies, or even if one believes some legislation illegal, is simply inaccurate and lazy. It is potentially destructive of democracy because it simultaneously declares a breakdown of democracy, and suggests to some the need to go outside democratic processes that are implicitly, dangerously dysfunctional.

It was wrong then. It is wrong now.

AJA

6 thoughts on ““You’re a Fascist!” “No, YOU’RE a Fascist!”

  1. Mr Adler,

    You are quite right that the labeling, particularly using such despised terms as Nazi, fascist, communist, degrades the democratic process and the rule of law.

    I do wonder, though, when is the right time to draw a parallel between the historical events around the birth of something like Nazism and current events? Does one take the demonisation of opposing views as a warning sign? (something that’s far too common on both sides of the political spectrum). When does “if this continues the road leads there” become scaremongering?

    I honestly don’t know. It’s too easy to massage almost anything to fit any worldview.

    I didn’t like what I knew about the Patriot Act when it passed, because I could see it laying the foundations for a police state. As long as it and Patriot II remain law, those foundations are there for anyone with sufficient ill-will to use. Did passing that act make President Bush and everyone who voted for it fascist? Hardly. Short sighted, maybe. The nature of the election cycle tends to encourage short sightedness.

    I have similar reservations about the healthcare reform act – not because I don’t think the US health care system needs reform, but because I don’t think the act was either well designed, well thought out, or properly debated and considered. That’s already been demonstrated with the hurried addition of at least two amendments after the bill’s passage.

    At 2000+ pages of legalese, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find conflicting provisions, impossibilities, and potential disasters in there. That’s what the debate process is supposed to find and I think why conservatives find the way the bill was pushed through deeply disturbing. In my opinion, it’s a statement of contempt for one’s constituents to state as Speaker Pelosi did that “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it” (paraphrased – my eyes are watering and I really don’t want to chase down the exact quote).

    Those two examples from different administrations don’t make either one fascist – and the name-calling detracts from what in my opinion should be happening: the detailed analysis of the legislation just passed, with any flaws made public so that they can be corrected. WIthout that debate, any problems it has will be found a lot later in the piece, and be much more expensive to fix.

    Oh dear. Now my day job is emerging (software quality analyst – I’m paranoid about missing problems. If I miss them, that means a customer finds them – bad for my employers, bad for business, and a lot of work for me and everyone who gets dragged in to fix it).

  2. Jay – in many ways I agree with this post, and I believe you are making an important point.

    But some of those who are talking about fascism (which I define as a philosophy which places the welfare of the state above the individual) are not speaking lightly or irrationally.

    Btw, I do not think that Obama is the issue here. Congress is more the political mover. I think Obama was elected because he appeared most unlikely to be a fascist. But I am troubled by the fact that his administration has not rolled back some of the measures taken in the Bush years which I thought were dangerous.

    In any case, back to fascism. I would ask you to read this long and somewhat harrowing article that looks at the medical logic of the German society and its eventual evolution under the Nazis, and then comments about current ethical issues in medicine. The article was written in 1949 – today we have come much further along the road toward a utilitarian view of human life and the function of physicians as an arm of the state.
    http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=492

    I would also like to mention that the genuinely heroic resistance of the Dutch medical profession did not survive socialized medicine. In the Netherlands, euthanasia is commonly performed on both the old and the young. It is an official policy that parents can chose to have children up to 12 put to death.

    Your points about letting the system of law work are excellent. But as a person on the death list herself, I know the law will not work for me. There is no law in the US for the severely ill. The constitutional prohibition against any person being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process is a dead letter for severely ill persons.

    This is not Obama’s fault, but the fault of our entire society. We have lost the ability to accurately distinguish ethical lines.

  3. My understanding is that the insurance mandate is structured as a tax credit. It is as ordinary as the mortgage interest deduction and there is a 0.00% chance that it is unconstitutional. The lawsuits are just political theater for the gullible.

    I think if I were to ask people for a list of leaders in history who started wars invading other countries — wouldn’t Hitler be the most common answer? Are there any other contenders? Not that George Bush is genocidal or fascist. But in the entitlement he felt to start wars, his company is notorious.

  4. I for one am a lawyer, but would like to offer my non-lawyer two cents worth. President Obama should be truly ashamed of supporting warrentless wiretaps precisely because he is a laywer and was a Constitutional Law professor! However, I have much less problem calling George W. Bush a facist than I do with those attacking President Obama. There is the small matter of a person actually being elected in a Democracy that I do find kind of important. Bad decisions I can live with, fraudulent decisions I find more troubling.

  5. Jay,

    I read your post with great interest. I agree with much of what you have to say but I do have a comment on this statement:

    ” Among the features of well-known German, Italian, and Spanish fascism were authoritarianism (not totalitarianism) joined with heightened, ideologically rationalized chauvinism, variant forms of state capitalism, and persecution of dissidents.”

    I read some time ago that Mussolini coined the term “totalitarian” and applied it to the form of government the facists were building in Italy. I am not at home so I don’t have the journal at hand to find the quote, but it turns out Mussolini did not coin the word, although he used it to describe his regime.

    I found this on Wikipedia.

    “The notion of Totalitarianism as “total” political power by state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola who described Italian Fascism as a system fundamentally different from conventional dictatorships.[4] The term was later assigned a positive meaning in the writings of Giovanni Gentile, Italy’s most prominent philosopher and leading theorist of fascism. He used the term “totalitario” to refer to the structure and goals of the new state. The new state was to provide the “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.”[5] He described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens.[6] According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human:[4]”

    “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

    For much of my life, totalitarian has been used primarily to describe military dictatorships or police states and I was surprised to see the etymology of totalitarian began as something that was seen by its originators as a positive activity of the state. But it is also authoritarian in its intentions and practices.

    1. John, interesting contribution. You provoke my memory with the Mussolini quote. I do believe that historically, typical military dictatorships and autocracies have been designated authoritarian, while communist regimes were labeled totalitarian because of, precisely, that Marxist-Leninist (and Trotskyite) ideological belief that “everything spiritual and human” is political. You remind me that Mussolini had similar totalitarian aspirations, never fulfilled, from a different ideological starting point.

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