Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Digital Divide

Check out this article by Johann Hari on the digital divide--

The times, they are a changin’. The internet is changing how we get our news, buy our stuff, and relate to one another. Johann Hari raises many questions about the impact of these changes. Just as the printing press helped facilitate the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the Protestant reformation, and language based nationalism, so does the internet contain the potential to transform our world. The question is how and whether it is for the better.

Although the internet facilitates getting information quickly, it doesn't makes us more intelligent in any real sense. There is a definite sacrifice in quality in favor of quantity and speed. I had a student once say to me, quite seriously, “Why would I read a book, when I have the internet.” My heart totally sank. Although the internet may be good for looking up a few facts and getting a random opinion, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the substantive content of the internet. If you have access to an academic institution, you can usually get more in depth articles and sometimes you can pay for online subscriptions, but the “free” information is often suspect. Unless you really know what you are looking for the internet isn’t great. On the other hand, you can always find what you are looking for on the internet, no matter how ridiculous. And since many internet sites are reluctant to cite sources—it turns much of the internet into a pretty effective urban myth and rumor machine. In this culture, “reality based” arguments are often problematic. Once I was attacked in a discussion room (by a right wing conservative whose constant mantra was that liberals have opinions, conservatives have facts) because I couldn’t provide a link that corroborated my statements. When I said I read them in a book (and provided the citation), I was told that this didn’t count because he couldn’t verify it and therefore my argument was fallacious. When I said, “Go to a library”—I was told that this level of argument was inappropriate for the internet because we can’t expect people to do that. And this is a representative of “educated opinion.”

One thing I have noticed since I have been perusing the internet with regularity, is the general lack of well reasoned and well supported arguments in the blogosphere or on discssuion boards. Much of it seems to be the nature of the medium. Most discussion boards have space requirements and even if they don’t, most posters prefer quick insults, dismissive comments, or sarcastic witticism. Personal, racist, and sexist attacks are quite common. Because most posting is basically anonymous, you don’t have to PC on the PC. At a certain level that gives a certain raw realism to the internet, but I also think it encourages ridiculous ideological posturing which someone would never do in “real life” where they might have to take responsibility for their opinion.

I know I am personally guilty in some respects. I have a much easier time reading printed material than on screen material-there is something about a book in my hands which makes reading more fun. Scrolling through an internet site—not so fun. Therefore, when I post in a discussion room, I play by the rules--quick, opinion charged, shots. As Hari indicates, it may be true that basic reading can be improved through the internet over TV, but if the internet comes to supplant books (if not the physical book, but the complex content within)—we have a problem. I see a lot of this in the class room. Many students have real trouble writing understandable sentences and organizing thoughts, but can spout “facts” that come from various internet sites. The relative ease of clicking and pasting has made plagiarism a real problem. Not only do students not need to read, they don't need write or think through things logically. Internet chatting and “texting” may very well become the “Newspeak” of the 21st century.

Corporate control of the internet is a spectre. In the past few years, the internet has become much more heavily marketed, as corporations have struggled to compensate for the loss of revenue on the bood tube and radio. I am not up on the specifics regarding attempts to regulate the internet, but it seems like it is well on its way to “market regulation.” Internet marketing has become a new million dollar industry—using search engines and links to steer surfers in particular directions is the key to capitalism on the internet. Ultimately, it is all about advertising.

Believe it or not, I have a Luddite tendency in me a mile wide. That may seem silly as I type away on MS Word 2007, preparing to post my ramblings on the information superhighway, but it is true. Although I usually come around to specific technologies, I am quite slow compared to most people I know. I resisted ATM cards like the plague (but use one now), I just got my first cell phone well after most of my friends, and just started a blog about 6 mos ago. Other aspects of technology I generally reject—not big on “texting,” my cell phone is nothing special, I have an old school television, no gaming system, and I have no desire to “keep up with the Joneses” on most technological developments.

As backwards as I think I am, I realize that I am way ahead of most people. I know much more about computers than the average Joe (primarily because I use one for my job), and am probably more internet savvy then most regular surfers. And that just includes people who have access to computers on a daily basis. What about people who don’t? The true digitial divide isn’t between bloggers and corporations, it is between those who regularly use computers for their job or leisure and those who rarely touch a keyboard. In a country like the US, that may seem like not that much of a big deal, but it is bigger than most people think. According to Edutopia, approximately 54% of Americans use the internet--which means 46% don't. Those with internet access tend to be concentrated in upper income groups and white folks are over represented. From a global perspective the divide gets larger. As an example, I was an online video game at my brother in law’s and it showed where all the players were in the world—it was quite revealing. Most of the globe (except North America and a few pockets in Europe and Asia) was dark. He said, “You see where the money is”--quite right.

On the one hand, I have been impressed with the diversity of opinion on the internet. It is comforting to know that there are people out there with crazier ideas than I have. It is also personally comforting (but also disturbing)that I fare well among the educated classes. On the flip side, the internet is hardly representative of the hopes, dreams, and wishes of the general population. In that respect, it is just like the newspapers in 1850 when literacy rates were less than 50%. It is simply a reminder of how far we have to go.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Stimulate This!

It isn't often in a predominantly political blog that one can use the words "Bush," "Stimulus," and "Package" all in an article. So what is this Bush stimulus package all about and who is it going to help? The first thing I thought when I heard about the stimulus package was the $300, "thank you for electing me," checks we all got in Bush's first term. I think I signed mine over the Democratic National Committee. This stimulus package is no less political, as the checks will probably arrive sometime in August or September, during convention season. That the economy is becoming an albatross for the Republicans makes the timing something more than a coincidence.

The nature of the package has been pretty well debated--it will go to "taxpayers only"--taxpayers in Republican-speak doesn't include old people, young people, and the working poor. I'll remember that next time someone tries to charge me a sales or excise tax on gasoline, beer, or groceries--"Hey, the Republicans say I am not a taxpayer!" What is interesting is the perverted logic of the highly selective tax rebate. It is supposed to stimulate the economy by putting money in people's pockets. That is a novel idea--I think it was John Maynard Keynes that came up with it--remember the guy whose economic principles were the basis of New Deal liberalism? It always fascinates me when conservatives use liberal economic logic to explain their actions. It makes me realize that many people have no idea the basis of conservative supply-side economic theory and also suggests that Keynesian liberalism seems to remain "common sense" even in in the age of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan.

Of course, the economic stimulus package isn't designed to put money in people's pockets--it looks like it is, but it is not. If it were, it would specifically target the working poor and those at the economic margins--it would bring them in to the consuming economy. The target is those who are in the consuming economy so far that they are over their heads. Over their heads in credit card debt, unable to get new credit, and mortgaged to the hilt. Presumably what people will do with the money is pay for last year's big screen TV, Wiii, and RockBand, get caught up on the gas card, pay down that second mortgage, and avoid collections on that root canal. In other words, send the money right back to the institutions which are largely responsible for the mess to begin with--primary lenders, credit companies, and insurance companies. The "bail out" is for the financial hegemons who are starting to get nervous because America is collectively running a large tab and getting later and later on its payments.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Todd Gitlin, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent

Why do the Republicans keep winning elections? How have the Republicans, despite their hypocrisy and failure to deliver to many of their constituents, been able to consistently turn out those same constituents? Conversely, why do the Democrats appear to be so inept at running national campaigns? Why have the Democrats not been able to politically capitalize on Republican failures? Todd Gitlin explores these questions in his new book The Bulldozer and the Big Tent.

Honestly, I have always had trouble with Todd Gitlin. At a certain level, I should like him—after all, he was a sixties radical and SDS organizer. He is also a political pragmatist. Although I was too young to be a “sixties radical,” I was an “eighties and nineties radical,” when radicalism was much less cool. Today, I consider myself a utopian realist—perhaps best represented by Casey Kasem’s advice to “keep both feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I believe that we need to constantly be thinking about the best case scenarios for humanity and the world, while at the same time understanding realistically where we are and what obstacles lay before us. This is one of the reasons why two years ago I registered as a Democrat, after years of being proudly independent.

Nevertheless, more often than not, I find myself in opposition to Gitlin. I have found many of writings to be dismissive of street politics, and his unequivocal support for the Democratic Party to be troublesome. Those themes are present in The Bulldozer, and are the worst part of the book. On the other had, the book does offer some interesting, if not totally original, insights into the problems of the Democratic Party.

The majority of the book deals with what the Republicans are doing right, rather than what the Democrats are doing wrong. The Republican Party, despite its claims of being “states rights” party, has successfully nationalized campaign strategy, creating a top down organization coordinating local electoral strategy. The have successfully exploited the flaws of the winner take all district system and the over representation of sparsely populated areas to create strategic regional “majorities.” They have mastered marketing techniques, appropriated from their corporate allies, including direct mailing and market (voter) analysis, to know exactly who to target and how to target them to get them to show up at the polls. They have capitalized on the deregulation of the communications industry to create a “noise machine” which creates talking points in a lock step manner, successfully framing issues in terms favorable to conservatives. In short, they have created a relatively monolithic party organization, a “bulldozer,” capable of not only of burying its enemies, but shaping the political landscape in a way that makes conservative “faith” a reality, or at least close enough for its adherents.

Conversely, the Democrats are still mired in a post-1960s malaise. Unlike the relatively homogeneous (white, protestant, heavily male) Republicans, the heterogeneous Democrats are comprised of a multitude of interest groups with differing priorities—feminists, civil libertarians, African Americans, Hispanics, labor, “helping” professionals, homosexuals, and environmentalists. Although many of these groups are well organized internally, they don’t always cooperate well beyond their particular interests, and when they do, they are not very efficient—their “Big Tent” easily flapped by the slightest wind (sometimes internal "hot air") and certainly no match for the Republican bulldozer.

So what is Gitlin’s prescription for the Democrats? Well, not surprisingly, the Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook. The Democrats should become more of a “party”—using more centralized organizing, setting aside differences for the common good, and sharing information with one another. Many of these things seem to be already happening. Since Howard Dean has taken over election strategy, the Democrats have improved their party activism, compiled mailing lists, and worked with internet savvy groups like MoveOn. Additionally, the Bush Administration has done a pretty darn good job of getting otherwise complacent liberals mobilized, and politicizing the otherwise unpoliticized. It has yet to turn into a major realignment, but one can sense the tide turning.

The “liberal” media has not done the Democrats any favors either. Although many major news outlets appear superficially liberal, largely due to their size and the need to advertise to a diverse consumer market, opinion typically features both liberal and conservative voices. The biggest fear of the “liberal media” is appearing liberal, which has tamed the aggressive advocacy reporting that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. There is no liberal equivalent of the Murdoch Group, Sinclair Broadcasting, or Christian Broadcasting. There are some efforts to counter this—Air America and parody shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show—however, they are too few and far between.

Although many of the things that Gitlin says are true, I disagree with some of the implications of his analysis. Although it may be true that the Democrats are more heterogeneous and appear to be more of a debating club rather than political party, I have considered the unwieldy multitude that is the Democrats to be one of its more redeeming qualities. I have no desire to see them impose a false universalism upon a party which I believe is strengthened by its diversity. I also disagree with the notion that “sixties radicals” and ongoing political activism bear the blame for the demise of the Democrats. Although it may be true that sixties idealism lent itself to the revolutionary adventurism and ideological purism that has beleaguered the left, the greater culprit has been the “pragmatic liberals” who abandoned their most loyal and best organized voters (organized labor) in favor of supply-side economics, “free trade” deals, and welfare reform. It has been pragmatic liberals which have taken the votes of the Democratic multitude for granted and given them little in return. “Radicals” like Ralph Nader are not the problem; it is the failure of the Democrats to offer clear alternatives to the rightward shift. Even Gitlin’s support for “the uniquely gifted” Clinton is tepid—the best things he says about him is that he obstructed the pro-corporate DLC from totally cannibalizing the liberal wing of the party (Thanks Bill!) and that he won twice despite a right wing propaganda onslaught. Gitlin does not give sufficient credit to Clinton for his real crime, his support for NAFTA—a potential capture point for a substantial portion of the electorate, including the white working class, but which pragmatic liberals passed.

The real lesson of the Republican success is not that, in order to win, one must rush to center; one needs to create “positive polarization.” The Republicans have been masters at this. Rather then avoiding fights with the Democrats by blurring the party lines, the Republicans have continued to move right and mobilize the most reactionary voters on specific issues against the “evil” that is liberalism. In one of the final chapters, Gitlin explores public opinion and to what extent the Democrats should “move right” to win. Based on his statistics, such a move is unnecessary and “positive polarization” is not impossible. Although roughly 22% of voters consider themselves to be liberal compared to 36% conservative, this is largely a fiction of labels and the product of effective propaganda. Studies of issue based opinions indicate that, regardless of how people define themselves, 52% of the population is “operationally liberal”--meaning that they hold predominantly liberal opinions. The biggest stumbling block seems to be “cultural issues”—which is a reflection of the Republicans success at defining the terms of the debate. This at least suggests that a Democratic breakthrough is possible within the existing framework of public opinion. It also suggests that economic issues, if properly packaged and aggressively pursued, could trump abortion, prayer in schools, and creationism. In short, the Democrats need their Barry Goldwater—a visionary who may seem extreme, but who provides a language and strategy for the party.

Gitlin’s analysis is short on the issue of demographics and class which often undergirds political realignments. The Democratic success of the 1930s and 1940s rested upon a base of second and third generation immigrants, many of whom felt outside the mainstream of American society economically and culturally due to Gilded Age excesses and xenophobic cultural puritanism. The Democratic New Deal ushered in a "Golden Age" for the American middle class and for many workers and created opportunities (even if reluctantly) for an emergent civil rights movement. As Kevin Phillips and others have argued, the US is passing through a second Gilded Age, and if history provides any lessons, a populist correction is in the offing, if the Democrats are prepared to reach out to new voters, particularly Latinos, but also frustrated white workers and young people. Which is ultimately part of the problem, the Democratic Party leadership has been scared of its constituency for decades; I think it is about time they embraced them.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

A New American Fascism

In The End of America, Naomi Wolf argues that the US is moving towards fascism. Similarly, Ron Paul has recently said that the US is developing a “soft fascism.” Interestingly enough, paleo-conservative libertarians like Paul and progressives liberals like Wolf seem to be equally disturbed about trends in the US. It is a legitimate question and one which bears serious investigation. If any society, which is relatively free, seems prepared to give up that freedom for security, true “patriots” must begin asking questions and demanding answers.

Part of the difficulty is that, as I have argued before, “fascism” is an all purpose charge with a historical resonance—it means “I don’t agree with your politics so therefore I will equate it with the worst political system I can imagine as a way of discrediting you.” Previously, I outlined characteristics of fascism largely drawn from Nazi Germany and Italy with some additions from other fascist-style movements. So is the US sliding to fascism based on these criteria?

There is no doubt that their have been certain tendencies in this direction in recent years. Most nations are nationalistic in some form, the US is no different, however, because US nationalism is connected to a high powered military apparatus and transnational capitalism, US “nationalism” often takes the form of imperialism—something that few Americans grasp. Yes, according to international law, countries have the right to self-defense, however, does self-defense mean I can attack whomever I want whenever I perceive a threat, no matter how minute or irrational? Of course the answer is no, but it seems as if American political culture simply cannot process this. I do sense a growing “nationalism” in the US which mimics imperial justification. We have to fight them over there so we don’t fight them here—right?

Similarly, the naturalization of the corporate structure and planned capitalism in the US does create a certain reverence for martial like institutions and social hierarchy. We question particular leaders, but rarely the concept of leadership. That all presidential candidates run on their “leadership qualities” (which implicitly mean my ability and willingness to make the “tough decisions”—a code word for killing people) is a problem. That elections are more about manipulating public opinion than listening to it has naturalized propaganda as a form of public discourse. Which set of lies do you choose to believe? Additionally, there has been a growing siege mentality in the US—we are under siege from outside from Muslim terrorists, internally from Mexican immigrants. Although rarely is any connection posited between the two (except the occasional point that Muslims might get in through Mexico), the internal/external enemy issue is present.

In summary, I would say the US contains many of the traits of a fascist state. Thankfully, we don’t have a movement which can be designated as fascist. The closest we have are a few disparate groups which could provide the basis of a movement. Namely, anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen, some religious right organizations, and hyper-nationalist individuals and groups which seek to maintain American cultural purity. These groups are in part motivated by “Golden Age” perfection myths—if we only went back to the “old days” of the Revolutionary generation we would have the Christian, slaveholding, genocidal nation that our founding fathers wanted, right? If these groups coalesced around a particular leader, or more likely, against a particular leader or party, it is possible to imagine an American fascism. Ironically, it seems like political right in the US is so hostile to populism of any sort (even right wing populism) that it is reluctant to attach itself too closely to any populist leader. The recent experience of Mike Huckabee is case and point. After his win in Iowa, neo-cons very quickly “vetoed” him, exposing the rift between the neo-cons and the theo-cons. It wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now--neo-conservatives want theo-con votes, but not their input. From a neo-conservative perspective, his saving grace is that he supports the Iraq war, but I think Huckabee’s only chance is that he tones down is populist rhetoric and takes a backseat to a more trustworthy economic conservative.

In other words, Ron Paul is right in that the slide towards fascism has been “soft”—meaning that it is not associated with any particular party, nor with any definable political program. It has occurred “from above,” gently and gradually with multiple explanations for the drift—terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants, crime, economic necessity, etc. Klein also wonders if it would be possible to have fascism and still retain elements of democracy—meaning that many Americans would be effectively insulated from the effects of fascism. I think this is quite possible. My biggest fear for America is that we will trade in our civil liberties, because we lose faith in the notion of individual liberty and popular rule, for the promise of cheaper gas, plastic shit from China, and the knowledge that a brown person is cleaning our toilets out of fear of being deported. It may not be fascism, but it certainly would be horrible—and very American.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Review: David Zirin, Welcome to the Terrordome

I grew up in a very sports oriented family. I played sports, my sister played sports, my father talked about sports, and we attended many sporting events. Sports were important, sports defined you. I was fortunate to grow up in Cincinnati in the 1970s and 1980s as I was able to see some of the greatest baseball players to ever play and, on occasion, some decent football. As my family is largely from Indiana, I also grew up watching some pretty good Hoosier basketball. As I grew older, and more politically aware, I also became to see how athletics was one way that people debate morality, ethics, and justice. It is also an industry that, in some ways, is a microcosm of the nation--for good and bad.

The first time I became aware of this was while attending a University of Michigan basketball game. I don't recall who they were playing, but I happened to notice that all the players on the court were black. I then panned around Crisler Arena and noticed that I couldn't find a single black face (not that their weren't any blacks there, I am sure there were, I just couldn't pick any out.) I thought--"I wonder if this is how the Romans felt." By then, I was already aware of racism in athletics. My first specific remembrance was while watching an Indiana basketball game and the announcers stated that the particular lineup on the court was the Hoosiers' "most athletic"--I looked at the players and couldn't understand the basis for that comment, until I realized that every black player on the team was on the court--and then I understood--he meant "most black." It was a sudden realization--an epiphany--I quickly began going through my catalog of adjectives typically associated with professional athletes--smart, a leader, hard-worker, a hustler vs. gifted, talented, athletic, instinctual---you don't need to be Al Sharpton to understand where I am going. In Welcome to the Terrordome, David Zirin explores the politics of race and culture that are part of the spectacle of athletics. Ranging from the Barry Bonds witch hunt to Hurricane Katrina, Zirin examines how sports reflects and shapes our society.

Although it is often difficult to think of professional athletes as "workers," Zirin reminds us that professional sports teams are class stratified organizations and are embedded in a class society. This is most obvious in the minor-league system in baseball. In a very insightful chapter, Zirin explores how Caribbean and Latin American poverty serves to feed baseball many of its aspiring stars, at bargain prices, until they reach the "big time." Also, how black Americans, many of whom who live in cities beleaguered by poverty and a lack of public resources drained by expansive stadium projects, are turning away from baseball due to its expense and lack of places to play. The incredible pay discrepancies and short career expectancies combine to create a win at all cost attitude in athletics, which has been a perfect breeding ground for performance enhancing drugs ranging from simple painkillers to steroids.

This isn't the only way that people with power exploit sports. The Pat Tillman incident is case and point--how an "all-American boy" and athlete came to be a poster boy for war. Of course, it is no mystery to any sports fan that team owners try to use fan loyalty as a political tool to gouge tax rebates out of the public to construct public stadiums for private purposes--classic welfare for the rich in the name of "supporting the team."

Zirin also reminds us that athletics, on occasion, can be a site of cultural progress and popular triumph. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act. Athletes like Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and others have used their status as stars to make political statements and raise public awareness about important issues. At times, fans have used sporting events to raise awareness of social justice. In fact, one of the first major protests that I helped to organize took place at a sporting event--it was an anti-sweatshop action at a Michigan football game.

Zirin reflects on why more athletes don't take stands. His interesting answer is a combination of apathy and fear. As with many people, even if you have a commitment to a particular cause or issue, it can be easier to keep it to yourself rather than deal with the ramifications of expressing your opinion. Although it may seem easier for wealthy professional athletes, since the industry is premised on image and marketing, becoming politically controversial can be risky--it certainly won't help your endorsements.

David Zirin is easily the most politically astute sports writer I have come across. Few writers are able to situate sports in the larger context of society as Zirin is, and for that, his work Welcome to the Terrordome is worth the read.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Fascist tendencies in the White Republic

The United States has always had a divided soul. America was founded by idealists, lovers of liberty, and those fleeing tyranny. The American Revolution sought to "begin the world anew," quoting international revolutionary Thomas Paine, by offering a constitutional republic sans a hereditary aristocracy or established religion. The 19th century countryside swelled with experimental communities and "rugged individualists" mixing their labor with the land. European travellers marvelled at the American democratic experiment as it seemingly proved that a nation of farmers and mechanics could survive and thrive. This Enlightenment inspired, democratic, and egalitarian ethos is firmly steeped in American culture. However, the United States is a settler society--it exists thanks to a century long genocidal conflict to claim the continent from the natives. It was also a slave/apartheid society--coerced labor and segregation created empires of wealth and subsidized American living standards into the twentieth century. The legacy of this is the ideology of white supremacy--America's imperial religion--also deeply steeped in American culture.

Examining the contradictions of American political culture, Louis Hartz called Americans "irrational Lockeans." We are Lockean because America's material conditions were well suited to Lockean republicanism, irrational because the conditions were so naturalized that there was no need to reflect on what Locke opposed, no ancien regime to overthrow---just land to be settled. On the latter issue, Hitler admired America's brutal efficiency--its "Manifest Destiny"--and speculated that what he saw when he looked east must be what Americans saw when they looked west--living space.

The two souls have a religious character as well. On the one hand, the US has been the repository of anti-nomianism, radical egalitarian religious traditions, and rationalist Christian sects that have sought to create a "Heaven on Earth." On the other hand, the US has also been the home of fatalistic Calvinism. A doctrine where success and failure are due to God's will. This is true for the individual and true for the nation and contributes to the almost messianic mission that the US sees for itself--we are the richest and most powerful because of divine providence.

The divided soul has made many Americans susceptible to irrational populist and quasi-fascist appeals. The establishment of racial segregation in post-Civil War America prefigured fascist organizations. Klansmen, White Knights, Red Shirts, and other paramilitary organizations used terror and violence to prevent the establishment of black political power--keeping America's "White Republic" intact. The rhetoric of "states rights," originally being a warning against centralized and unaccountable government, has become a rallying cry of oppression--the Federal government can't force us to stop terrorizing black people--that would be unconstitutional! The Populist Party of the 1880s and 1890s, originally an integrated farmer and worker movement against big capital, ran aground on the shoals of racism, Plessy v. Ferguson, and political expediency, making peace with agricultural capital and subverting the cooperative commonwealth. In its wake, the KKK reemerged, now as a national organization and one with significant political influence in both the southern Democratic and northern Republican Parties. Following WWII, racism and genocide seemed "less American"--however, the White Republic has lived on, but is more subtle.

America's soul remains divided. The United States in one of the freest countries on the face of the planet. We enjoy a great degree of personal freedom and the state is relatively constrained. Americans are free to debate and criticize their government, organize protests, and hold their representatives accountable. But our twin is still with us, and has matured and become more sophisticated. Today's "Manifest Destiny" is overseas--in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Latin America. Although white supremacy isn't nearly as fashionable as it once was, our culture still oozes with it--false colorblindness in the face of persistent racism, using the constitution to subvert the notion of equality before the law, and our self-appointed mission to defend "western civilization." Coerced and segregated labor, the former overseas, the latter in the form of undocumented workers, continue to subsidize the Empire. It is these latter tendencies which lay the groundwork for an American Fascism.

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fascism in Fiction

Although truth may be stranger than fiction, often fiction is one of the best ways to find truth. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis penned It Can’t Happen Here, a fictional tale of a fascist takeover in America. By Lewis’s own admission, it wasn’t his best work. It rambles, has too many characters and subplots, and could be cut by a third and be a much better book. That being said, it has moments of brilliance. Part dystopia, part satire, Lewis explores the political and social spectrum of America and speculates how fascism could come develop in the land of the free. Part of the brilliance of the book is that he quite correctly makes American fascism very American. It invokes the founding fathers, waves the flag, reads the Bible, and enjoys barbeque and beer—it is truly a homegrown movement, as fascism must be.

Of course, Lewis isn’t the only author to speculate on what a fascist American would look like. One of the first attempts was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), a brilliant dystopia where early twentieth century America comes under the sway of “The Oligarchy.” The Oligarchy emerged as a new elite class created to suppress a worker uprising. London successfully predicts the success of fascism following failed revolutionary movements in Germany and Italy (so much so it makes me wonder if Mussolini read the book for ideas). It also points to a potential base for fascism in the United States in the “labor aristocracy”—well paid middle class workers who enjoy a significant amount of material abundance (he even predicts suburbia) in exchange for their role as guardians of the system.

More recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), written in the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the emergence of a right wing political Christianity, speculates how a religious based movement might establish a theocratic fascism in the United States. The Republic of Gilead, an inheritor state to the United States, was created out of a civil war fought to turn back the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, particularly feminism. Gilead is a society based on a rigid gender and racial hierarchy, enforced largely by women upon other women. Atwood’s book is interesting in that it highlights the complexity of gender and politics and how the debate over “family values” and the proper role of women could lead to a fascist America.

Of the three, Lewis’s is best at exploring the movement on its own terms and how it came to power. It is also the least ideologically driven and historically grounded book, and therefore seems more plausible. In It Can’t Happen Here, fascism comes to America through the alliance of social forces that existed in the 1930s—ultra-conservative Christians, disgruntled war veterans, a popular militia (known as the Minute Men), and an anxious business community. The movement coalesces under the leadership of Buzz Windrip, a folksy, plain talking, “Professional Common Man,” who only reads the Bible. Windrip, thanks to his handler and publicist Lee Sarason, successfully outmaneuvers FDR in the 1936 primaries, forging a new political coalition from conservative southern Democrats and northern Republicans heavily financed by the industrial elite (sounding familiar?). Lewis draws his inspiration from the political milieu of the 1930s—Father Coughlin, Huey Long, the KKK, the DAR, Randolph Hearst, and many others historical actors are either referenced are parodied in the book. Although many on the Left criticize FDR for not going further with his reforms, Lewis reminds us that if FDR had not been elected, the country would have moved much further right, not left.

To answer the New Deal, Windrip offers the “real” New Deal—promising populist economic reform, a guaranteed national income, and an end to unemployment (none of which come to pass), while at the same time establishing rigid racial segregation, establishing the US as a “Christian Nation,” removing women from the workplace, establishing rule by executive decree, and outlawing Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism. Dissenters are dealt with by the Minute Men, a “marching club” that eventually becomes the political police. Revenue that is supposed to go to human services and education ends up financing the emergent police state. The movement uses American songs and American symbolism to make all these changes appear to be signs of patriotism in hard times. It capitalizes upon modern propaganda techniques, utilizing its financial support to buy the air time (and public opinion).

Lewis also satirizes the Left—suggesting that much of what gives fascism a potential base, is the inability of the Left to make itself relevant to the public. The main character is the meek Jessup Doremuse (Dormouse)—a well read and unrepentant Liberal, who understands what is happening, but struggles to know how to combat it until it is too late. Other victims of the regime include Communists and Socialists, who spend more time arguing with each other and Liberals rather than constructing realistic political alternatives or combating the common enemy.

In many respects, Lewis’s book is the most prescient of the three. His acute analysis of the political forces in the United States and how they could interact to create a fascist dictatorship is remarkable. At the very least, he predicted the potential for the Right wing resurgence under which we are currently living. That Buzz Windrip and Lee Sarason resemble George Bush and Karl Rove is even more bizarre. Lewis clearly identified the power that the “professional common man,” amplified by corporate airwaves, could have.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

What is Fascism?

This is the first in a series of essays attempting to explore the possibility of a fascist America. It is in part a response to a number of recent books which have argued that the US is sliding towards fascism (Joe Conason, Naomi Wolf, John Dean) and less directly to challenge the politicized, ahistorical, and often inaccurate use of the word “fascism” to describe any belief system that one opposes.

In 1944, George Orwell posed the question “What is fascism?” His true, but incomplete answer is that “fascism” is the ideology that I despise, “fascist” is the nation I hate, “fascism” is a behavior of which I disapprove—in other words “fascism” is simply a meaningless epithet. This is as true today as when Orwell wrote it when Trotskyists, Communists, Socialists, Conservatives, Pacifists, and Catholics were labeled “fascists.” Today we have Islamo-fascism, Bush is a fascist, and Hillary is a fascist.

So what is fascism? Of course, historically, fascism is derived from the Latin word fasces, meaning "bundle" implying "strength through unity" and is often associated with militarism. It was used by Mussolini to describe his political movement in the 1920s and subsequently has become associated with similar movements including Nazism. Although the term today is an all purpose epithet, it is often used to describe any form of dictatorship or authoritarian regime. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it confuses characteristics of a particular state or the mechanisms of dictatorship, which are often determined by the socio-historical moment, rather than by the social forces and political aims which have brought that state into existence. For example, although there were similarities between slavery and indentured servitude (physical abuse, long work hours) the two systems were qualitatively different. Similarly, the means of England’s Puritan Dictatorship were not dramatically different from the means of any other feudal government of the period, however, the popular base, political goals, and social and religious practices were substantively different.

Although Fascism is dictatorial, it is not just a form of dictatorship; it is a social movement of a specific type with particular characteristics. So, what are those characteristics? Using Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and other similar movements, we have the following:

  1. Nationalism—Fascism requires fanatical allegiance to a nation-state. This exact form can vary and typically overlaps with ethnicity or race—but it is typically something inherited and collective in some manner (I realize that these are often social constructs and in some ways manners of choice, but fascism builds upon the conventional understanding that these categories are natural).
  2. Hierarchy—Although fascism is collectivist, it makes no pretense of creating social equality. It seeks to create and naturalize a social hierarchy—but in a new manner. The basis of the hierarchy is the power bloc (nation)—which must be elevated to its naturally just position above other similarly defined groups (Aryan over Jewish or Slavic, White over Black, Italian over Ethiopian, etc). Within the power bloc, leaders emerge, who are justly revered above the mass, because of their ability to serve the cause. They are the “best of their race/nation/people.” That the hierarchy is “new” is often one of the most attractive components of fascism because is gives people who are at the bottom of society, but who are part of the in-group hope for upward mobility.
  3. Leadership -- Although fascism is based on collectivism, there is room from individual initiative, so long as that initiative is for the group. This is the “leadership principle”—individuals within the power bloc who have “special” qualities and represent the best traits of the group will emerge as “leaders” whose authority is unquestioned because of their natural abilities, their power of will, etc. This creates a hierarchy within the favored group, but a hierarchy not based on social class or heredity (as all within in the group share a hereditary privilege). Leaders are often privileged with “decadence” not generally approved or available.
  4. Victimhood--Popular support for fascism is based on some perceived wrong or the status of “victim” for the group. The wrong is often dubious or irrational, although in some ways based on reality. This is often the result of some recent social or systemic crises that the society has gone through (losing a war, economic depression, internal strife) and the movement’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to right the wrong.
  5. Recreating a past Golden Age--Connected to the issue of victimhood is the desire to recreate some mythical past glory or Golden Age which has been destroyed. This often has a mystical/redemptive aspect. Although fascism seeks to recreate some past Golden Age, it isn’t anachronistic, in that it seeks to recreate the “glory” of the age, not the material conditions of the age itself—it is modern, not primitivist.
  6. Mobilization against an internal or external Enemy--Fascism is aggressive, either internally, externally, or both. It is animated by some enemy “other”—which is usually the culprit for destroying the Golden Age, responsible for the past crisis, etc. The enemy is sufficiently nefarious as to require full social mobilization.
  7. Militarization--Fascism seeks to militarize society and measures all social and economic activities by their utility to the defense of the group. Popular organizations are “coordinated” along military lines. It typically has its own para-military organization distinct from the conventional army--"brown/black/red/white shirts."
  8. Strict sexual division of labor--This extends to the family where gender roles are primarily defined by their function in defending the group. Women produce children, who will be soldiers, workers, and mothers. Fathers provide for and defend their family and the nation.Homosexuality, Feminism, and other beliefs and practices that challenge these roles are forbidden because they serve no obvious familial function.
  9. Opposition to universalist ideologies—Fascism is characterized by a profound opposition to any universalist ideology or political practice that suggests human equality in any manner whether it is liberalism, democracy, communism, or socialism. This also extends to any form of religion which emphasizes the “equality of souls,” international solidarity, or, because of its beliefs, rejects the authority of the state.
  10. State managed capitalism—Fascism utilizes highly planned capitalism--"war capitalism" if you will. Fascist social movements often employ anti-capitalist rhetoric, but rather than seeking to overturn the system, it seeks to drive out the “bad capitalists” (due to their out-group status) and regulate the “good capitalists,” compelling them to serve the “national interest.” Capitalists continue to own, but lose much of their control over their own operations to the state in exchange for retaining their class privileges.

These ten traits obviously overlap and, in different historical contexts, there are different degrees of emphasis. Fascist dictatorships incorporate the above as ways of securing a critical mass of support (even dictatorships need some popular support) and offering a rationale for their existence. Of course, fascist dictatorships share many characteristics of other dictatorships. Typically, there is some form of party, which serves as a recruiting and disciplining mechanism for society and those who aspire to power; the government exercises a high degree of centralized authority and arbitrary power; and a personality cult surrounding the leader of the party. It is these latter traits which often lead to a conflation between fascism and state socialism or even war-time capitalism. As I have argued, these are more reflections of the historical moment than they are of the aims of the respective systems.

Fascism is a synthetic ideology that prides itself on “efficiency” and will happily mimic or borrow from other ideologies or other systems. For example, economic planning can be quite effective and therefore fascism adopts “socialistic” means to achieve anti-socialist ends. Although Fascism is right-wing in the classical sense, but it isn’t “elitist” in the classical conservative sense. Whereas classical conservative belief seek to preserve the privileges of the existing elites, whether it be aristocrats or plutocrats, fascism seeks to create a new and broader ruling class based on a new form of merit. This does not mean that it liquidates the previous ruling class, only that it intends to hold them to a new standard and to create opportunity for newcomers to emerge. Fascism’s relationship to religion is equally complex. Although fascism movements often utilize religious beliefs, it either emphasizes their national character (Lutheranism in Germany, Roman Catholicism in Italy) or seeks to transform them into a new, uniquely national religion. The latter tendency often creates tensions between fascism and religion. It is fascism's synthetic quality that generates so much of its appeal—it can be different things to different people.

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