The Public Humanist

Those Fascist Elites

Fascism, so far as I can tell, pretty much means everything, yet still means nothing these days. Trying to fish a theory of fascism out of the random, often hateful commentator rants (right and left) strikes me as foolish. Hardly interested in history and historical examples, that usage of the term aims to win a sentiment and rally passions, not make a point about the nature of governing, the governing personality, and ideas. I’ve always liked that old distinction between winning another sentiment and making a claim about the world, one first put so clearly by Socrates and one he valued to the point of his own death.

We don’t have fascists around here. The truth is, when we talk about fascism in U.S. politics, we’re not really interested in fascism. We have people trying to win policy issues and elections with the insult. I think the previous write-up in this space makes a great historical argument about fascism – you can’t really think we have a fascist president or have had one recently unless you bend the word and refashion it, top to bottom and completely changing its meaning, for your own random purposes. Like fascists have always done? Perhaps.

I’ve thought for quite awhile about this term and its place in our bleats and rants in U.S. political commentary (and politicians, sadly). The term does not have real meaning in that context, sure, and yet it comes up constantly. Especially over the first almost-two years of Obama’s presidency. Why all the fascism talk? I’ll be clear: if you ask me, what we mean by fascism in this country is what the right-wing now means by “elitism”: a group of people who make decisions for us. When we’re not making decisions and the decisions don’t go our way, fascism makes for a nice, neat insult. Especially these days.

Jacob Weisberg has a nice article on what he calls “the right’s favorite scare word”: elitism. I like this article. I like this article because the two words go together so often when the right rants about Obama and “the Democrats.” The left has different words; elitism is replaced by “good ol’ boy network” and “the wealthy.” But since we’re living out the second year of Obama’s presidency, and insults of fascism and socialism have in many ways defined those first two years, we’re stuck with elitist fascism for now.

Weisberg makes a good case for understanding “elitism” as just another word for “deciding.” Quoting Sarah Palin, who’s great at breaking this stuff down without complication, Weisberg concludes that elitism is “I guess just people who think that they’re better than everyone else.” What is the sign that one person or another “thinks” that s/he is “better than everyone else”? Well, as it turns out, thinking you’re better is the same thing as “fascism” these days: asserting a view, then making it a political reality. Or at least trying really hard.

In the end, I think all the rambling and angry eruptions about fascism point to an anxious role in our fragmented country: leadership. I think we’re not sure how to have leadership in a place where we love our individualism, not as a fundamental value (we seem so quick to let it go or ignore the erosion of individual rights, for better or worse), but as a kind of “let me have my wandering, inconsistent thought and fantasy that I could make it all work.” When someone acts decisively, with will and conviction, it all seems so “fascist” and, in Palin’s sense, “elitist.” Because we’d rather be left with our fantasies – namely, those that imagine the world’s problems as simple and in need of a little common sense. Honesty about complexity, or even just a “I have no idea what to do about THAT problem,” is rare. At best.

In a roundabout way, this reminds me of my favorite scene from Hannah and Her Sisters – a true moment of existential brilliance. Woody Allen’s character decides to try religion after convincing himself that he is terminally ill. Catholicism, in this case (that’s the religion, not the fatal condition…I think). He tells his parents and a great series of exchanges follow, culminating in Allen’s query to his father: if there’s a God, then why are there Nazis? The father replies: how the hell do I know, I don’t even know how the can opener works! Check out the clip (opens in new window)

The father’s sobriety on the deepest of deep issues – why is there evil? is there anything world believing in? – is played for a laugh, but it is also so refreshing (after all, it is Allen’s philosophical position in the film). A bit of humility would be nice when it comes to big things. I say this because I hear it so often about Obama, having heard it so many times about other presidents: why doesn’t he create jobs? (As if he didn’t care about people having jobs.) My honest reply, which is the honest reply of any honest person, expert or other, is the father’s reply: how the hell do I know how to create lasting employment? I don’t even know how the can opener works! We all have guesses.

I say all of that to come back around to the larger point. We get anxious about fascism because we are anxious about leadership. We’re anxious about leadership because we want to act like we could fix everything with either simple common sense (the right) or astute critical analysis of material causation (the left). No one likes “elites,” in other words. No one likes people making decisions for them. Because decisions are hard and usually fail when they have big aspirations. And part of the political human condition, it seems, is to imagine that we’d all do it better and somehow the elites and the fascists keep getting elected – because, perhaps, that’s what “elected” means these days…making decisions for us, being fascist and elitist.

What is fascism, then, in the end? At this point, an insult. Like most insults, just a word. But a word that points to something that the right and left seem to share, this fundamental American-ness: anxiety about decisions and decisiveness, that fundamental anti-governing feeling that seems, at this point in time, committed to making government impossible.

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