Eugene Robinson demonstrates why he’s one of my favorite columnists.
Ever since the president settled on “Islamic fascists” as the enemy in his war on terrorism, he has taken every opportunity to evoke the specter of World War II. We are engaged in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” Bush told the Legionnaires. …
… Rumsfeld went furthest of all in claiming that it is, in fact, 1939 — that the jihadist terror movement presents the same kind of threat to the world that Hitler did when he invaded Poland. He set up a straw man, warning that those who do not see the threat as clearly as he does are as blind as those who tried to appease Hitler. But he doesn’t specify who he’s talking about. Who wants to appease terrorists? Is it Democrats? Nervous Republicans who’ve seen the latest polls?
Nobody wants to appease terrorists. But some people have a different idea of how to fight them. The president is right when he says this conflict is unlike other wars, but he seems to miss the essential difference: It has to be fought in a way that doesn’t create two new terrorists for each one who is killed.
That’s not what the president wants to talk about, though. Between now and November, he wants to talk about a war that we can all agree on, even if it has no bearing on the war being fought today. Yes, Mr. President, Hitler was bad. And your point would be?
Here’s a maha rule: Labeling something isn’t the same thing as understanding it.
Some years ago I got into a flame on a U.S. Civil War usenet forum when someone wrote that all you need to know about antebellum slaveowners was that they were fascists. And I wrote back, no, they weren’t. The political and economic philosophies of the old plantation class differed in several significant ways from those of Hitler or Mussolini. Calling the slaveowners “fascists” doesn’t tell you anything about them at all. (Then, of course, I was accused of defending slavery because I said slaveowners weren’t fascists.)
The two of us were using the word fascist for different purposes. I was using it to refer to a particular ideology defined here as “A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.” Whatever else you want to say about the antebellum slaveowners, they sure as shootin’ didn’t like centralization of authority under a dictator. They were rabid antifederalists and anti-statists, and in many ways they were the forefathers of today’s libertarians.
But the other writer was using fascist as a synonym for demon. I suspect that if I had pressed him to define fascism as a political/economic ideology (I may have; I don’t remember) he couldn’t have done it. Demonization absolved the writer from understanding how and why a particular group of human beings oppressed another group of human beings.
It makes about as much sense to call Islamic jihadists “fascists” as it does to say that all those Mississippi plantation owners were fascists. As Eugene Robinson says,
Perhaps because the term “fascist” doesn’t really describe the transnational jihadist movement, Bush went further with the Legionnaires. He called the jihadists “the successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians” as well. The fact is that the jihadists are pretty much sui generis — they aren’t fascists or Nazis and certainly aren’t communists, but yes, you could make a good argument for “totalitarians.” I guess one out of four isn’t bad.
If you spend much time on Internet forums or blogs at all, sooner or later you’ll run into the “fascism is socialism” theory common among mal-educated righties. The theory works this way: Since fascism is totalitarian, and since socialism is just watered-down communism (according to rightie ideology), and communism is totalitarian, then socialism and fascism are exactly the same thing. And they all belong on the Left, with liberals, which means liberals are totalitarians. And since totalitarianism is on the Left, then the Right stands for freedom and democracy. And, of course, the next step after that is to claim that we must allow the President to break wiretap laws and violate the Fourth Amendment to preserve our freedom.
People who think this way judge action to be good or evil not by what is done, but who does it. What “they” do is evil. What “we” do is good. (Even if it’s the same thing “they” did.)
What Jimmy Carter said about fundamentalists could be true of any group of people. He said:
The fundamentalists believe they have a unique relationship with God, and that they and their ideas are God’s ideas and God’s premises on the particular issue. Therefore, by definition since they are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong. And the next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases — as is the case with some fundamentalists around the world — it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant. Another thing is that a fundamentalist can’t bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality. And so this administration, for instance, has a policy of just refusing to talk to someone who is in strong disagreement with them — which is also a radical departure from past history. So these are the kinds of things that cause me concern. And, of course, fundamentalists don’t believe they can make mistakes, so when we permit the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, it’s just impossible for a fundamentalist to admit that a mistake was made.
Let’s change a few words–
The [nationalists] believe they have a unique relationship with [their nation], and that they and their ideas are [the only legitimate ideas] on the particular issue. Therefore, by definition since they are [correct] anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong. And the next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases — as is the case with some [nationalists] around the world — it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant. Another thing is that a [nationalist] can’t bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality. And so [nationalist leader], for instance, has a policy of just refusing to talk to someone who is in strong disagreement with them — which is also a radical departure from past history. So these are the kinds of things that cause me concern. And, of course, [nationalists] don’t believe they can make mistakes, so when we permit [atrocities], it’s just impossible for a [nationalist] to admit that a mistake was made.
You could substitute any knee-jerk ideology, Left or Right, for “nationalists.” You could substitute any religion that insists on orthodoxy, which is most of ’em. Unquestioning and fanatical acceptance of just about any belief system will take you to the same place — where “we” are righteous and “they” are demons.
Ironically, that’s the place where “demons” are born. The first step in becoming a perpetrator of oppression and atrocities is to start making judgments about who’s fully human and who isn’t.
Studying the political, historical, cultural, social, and economic factors that foster oppression could help us learn how to prevent oppression, or at least recognize when a society is moving into the danger zone in which systemic oppression can occur. However, such study requires acknowledging that one’s enemies or oppressors are human. The Right fosters a rhetorical culture in which such recognition is a sign of weakness and “appeasement.”
Appease, btw, is another word that has a different meaning to righties than to the rest of us. The dictionary says it means —
1. To bring peace, quiet, or calm to; soothe. 2. To satisfy or relieve: appease one’s thirst. 3. To pacify or attempt to pacify (an enemy) by granting concessions, often at the expense of principle.
For our purposes that third definition is the most operative one. And offhand I can’t think of anyone suggesting that terrorists will leave us alone if we grant them concessions.
But to a rightie, “appease” doesn’t mean making consessions or buying off our enemies. It means being soft. For example — Sean Hannity said,
But in all seriousness, it drives you crazy when we talk about being weak on defense, you’re appeasers, the NSA program you don’t want, the Patriot Act program you don’t want, data mining you don’t want. You want to close GuantÃ¡namo Bay. I think that’s weak on the most important issue of our time: our national security. I think the Republicans, if they get that message out, and the president started that today, we will win.
I don’t see how any of that translates into “concessions” to terrorists. And (as Alan Holmes rebutted) I am not aware of anyone who doesn’t think potential terrorists shouldn’t be under surveillance or that that government shouldn’t pursue any possible source of intelligence. We want these things done, but we want it done under the law. Nobody says that apprehended terrorists shouldn’t be locked up, but we need to be careful that the people we are locking up really are dangerous terrorists.
If anything, it’s righties who fit the dictionary definition of “appeasers.” They are appeasing their own worst instincts at the expense of long-established American principles about liberty and justice.
Of course, the real purpose behind demonization — or the fascistization, if you will — of Islamic radicals is to clothe anti-Muslim bigotry as righteousness and claim entitlement to do anything we want to Muslims and Muslim nations in the name of fighting terrorism. It also enables demonizers to deny the reality that “anything we want” might incite once-moderate Muslims into violence against us. Even to consider that our actions might have unfortunate political consequences is tantamount to “appeasement” as righties use the word.
To those who point out that Iraq wasn’t a nexus of terrorism until we invaded, Cheney responds, “They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway.”
Huh? The terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11 didn’t come from Iraq. Except in Cheney’s mind, I don’t know where the fact that we were attacked by terrorists trained in Afghanistan (and sent by Osama bin Laden, who’s probably now in Pakistan) somehow mitigates the fact that we’ve made Iraq a hotbed of terrorism.
Yet Cheney’s words reflect a common logical fallacy on the Right. Again, this is all about assuming entitlement to do whatever we want in the Middle East; our actions don’t have consequences, after all.
Related stuff to read:
Fareed Zakaria, “The Year of Living Fearfully,” Newsweek
“Will Fear Strike Out?” Buzzflash editorial
Jason Miller, “Inalienable Human Rights are not Privileges,” Thomas Paine’s Corner
Matthew Schofield, “Mideast strife is bad news for peacemakers, good news for extremists,” McClatchy Newspapers
Mark Hosenball, “Iraq: A Sweeping, Secret New Report,” Newsweek
H.D.S. Greenway, “Hypocrisy in sowing democracy,” The Boston Globe
David Rohde, “In Afghanistan, a Symbol for Change, Then Failure,” The New York Times