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Tag Archives: AMERICA AND HUMAN RIGHTS

A SUBTLE KIND OF FASCISM

John Chuckman

The word fascism is used a lot, often pejoratively. The image that immediately comes to mind is Mussolini in a steel helmet, hands on hips, head tipped back, jaw thrust out. It is an image that influenced other fascists. Young Hitler was a great admirer.

It is always helpful for any discussion to define the subject carefully, a seemingly obvious principle often ignored. What exactly is fascism? Can fascism coexist to any extent with democratic institutions?

Fascism certainly is not the same thing as communism, although both these systems are represented by strongmen or tyrants and the state apparatus needed to support them. Those who like the nomenclature of the French Revolution might say that the two political extremes, right and left, almost meet somewhere in a bend of political space.

Private enterprise, of course, has been regarded as incompatible with communism, although contemporary China with its New Economic Zone begins to confuse the issue. Things have always been quite different with fascism. Fascist governments are favorable to the interests of enterprise, at least the interests of large-scale enterprises. Great private combines existed and were encouraged under Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. Fascism represents, if you will, a kind of large-scale, public-private partnership.

Fascism, much like the mental image of Mussolini, tends to be about power, generally a raw display of political and military power. These two things are welded together in a fascist state. Flags, banners, strutting, and marching feature prominently, with political occasions sometimes difficult to distinguish from military ones.

Fascism’s strutting-peacock displays serve several purposes. One, with their rise to power, fascist parties brag about getting things done (the reality of entrenched fascism proves another matter altogether), as opposed to the mundane, boring inefficiency of ordinary deliberations. This kind of promise appeals to the frustrations of many people who yearn for decisive change. Their yearnings may concern anything from building public projects to imposing moral rules..

There likely is a built-in component in human beings which finds authority attractive, at least over certain limits. Society mimics the show of power in many institutions from popes to presidents.

The display of power also intimidates enemies. Political opponents are not a common feature of fascist states, which always feature secret police, secret prisons, and heavy domestic spying, although they are sometimes allowed to exist in a neutered form for show or internal political purposes.

Aggression is closely associated with fascism. Partly the aggression is simply the result of having large standing armies and all the state and corporate apparatus associated with them. Large standing armies simply tend to get used – historians have offered this as one of the important explanations for the First World War – and the impulse to use them is undoubtedly increased by the psychology of fascism.

The psychology of fascist states tends to include penis-fixation – big guns, big flags, and big monuments. Aggression is a direct outgrowth of all the strutting, bragging, and marching.

Aggression also grows out of the fascist tendency to regard the nation as somehow specially blessed or endowed or entitled. There follows an assumed inherit right or even obligation to rule over others or at least to direct their destinies.

When you consider these characteristics, every one of them is an intrinsic part of contemporary American society. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that America is a kind of fascist state, certainly a softer-appearing one than some in the past, but then America excels at marketing, perhaps its one original intellectual gift to the world.

America does cling to ideals of human rights, something which it never fails to remind the world at international gatherings, but the truth is international gatherings are only regarded as useful for just such announcements. Despite clinging to human-rights ideals, at the very same time, America refuses to deal with others on the basis of these rights, and it often fails even to enforce the rights of selected categories of its own citizens.

This ambiguity about human rights is not so odd if you consider the many American Christians who enshrine Jesus’ great commandment and the Ten Commandments and yet stand ready at a moment’s notice to kill others in meaningless wars.

Genuine respect for human rights is surely more a matter of prevailing day-to-day attitudes in a society than words written on old pieces of paper.

But America is a democracy, isn’t it? It certainly has many of the forms of a democracy, but when you closely examine the details, as I’ve written previously, American democracy resembles a badly worn wood veneer. The ugly structural stuff underneath sticks out the way elbows do in a threadbare coat.

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STANDIN’ IN THE DOORWAY

John Chuckman

A new generation of American politicians “stands in the doorway” for states’ rights, although the scene of the drama has shifted to the nation’s capital, and the words used are far more civil than those heard in Alabama decades ago. You won’t hear the actual phrase “states’ rights,” with its disturbing history of service to American apartheid, but the stakes for millions of Americans may be just as great as they once were on the steps of an Alabama courthouse.

If nothing else, the call for doing more with local government is a great lazy politician’s trick for getting elected to national office. You offer voters the easy-to-keep promise of doing very little yourself coupled with assurances they will have better, more responsive government and pay less for it. This pitch plays especially well in areas where recent sprawl-development is costing taxpayers inordinate amounts to provide new local services of every description.

It is uncritically assumed that the closer government is to people, the more responsive it is to their needs. This proposition seems plausible, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

It is worth noting that few people in any town can name their state representative. Even fewer can name officials like county executive or city treasurer. And voter-participation across the nation drops to its lowest levels in local elections.

Corruption, on the other hand, gives every evidence of reaching peak levels under local government. Local police forces often are riddled with it. In some cases, they have been found to have hired common criminals. As well, American police have been cited by Amnesty International for brutality. And you don’t have to be a secret agent to understand that the easy availability of drugs in almost every corner of America isn’t really the fault of corrupt police in Mexico.

Local judges, in any number of American cities, when they aren’t just the legally-incompetent tools of machine politics, have been caught countless times taking bribes and fixing cases. Local companies often receive special consideration from local governments concerning either the enactment of new regulations or the enforcement of existing ones – after all, that’s just how many of the nation’s worst toxic dumps came into being.

The worst scandals in American history were state and local scandals. In the state where I grew up, just over my adult lifetime, a past governor, a secretary of state, and a county clerk have gone to prison. We all know the story of a past governor of Maryland who took brown paper bags full of cash from contractors for the state, even after he became Vice-President. And it is simply a fact that most of the many petty tyrants in American history, from Huey Long to Bull Connor, from Tammany Hall to Boss Tweed, were state and local figures.

And, as I’ve remarked before, while the State Department self-righteously wags its finger at the democratic shortcomings of other nations, vote fraud remains part of local American politics. It has a long and rich history, having been instrumental to the rise of a number of politicians.

There just aren’t enough checks and balances in local government. With smaller units of government, economies of scale make the cost of effective checks and balances greater. Post-war urban sprawl, on the other hand, has created tens of thousands of small, new units of governments.

In most communities, the local press has no inclination to investigative journalism. The actual day-to-day role of most small-town newspapers and broadcast stations is parochial boosterism.

The federal government comes with a complex set of checks and balances, which while not faultless provide a good deal of protection, and I’m not just referring to the old civics-class chestnut about three branches of government. Undercover investigations, audits, and especially the work of the many semi-autonomous agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and others serve an important role in keeping things honest.

The federal government provides national standards important to all citizens. It is precisely a lack of such standards that so often allows differing state regulations to function as security for scoundrels. Incompetent professionals and con artists drift from state to state to keep their operations going. Deadbeat dads do the same to avoid or delay their obligations to society. Some states provide methods for protecting assets from abandoned children or other worthy claimants.

All this kind of thing ends up costing American society a great deal of money and grief. It just doesn’t show up clearly with all the many different sets of books.

Are there many states, especially ones with large cities, where the child welfare agencies haven’t been shown to be shamefully inadequate? Are there many states, again especially ones with large cities, where the public school systems aren’t failing large parts of the population? Strings of incompetent or corrupt local school boards form almost an educational gulag across America. And isn’t it true that there are sizeable parts of the country, particularly the inner cities, where community and meaningful government virtually have ceased to exist?

How is it reckoned that state and local governments are qualified to assume any greater role in the lives of citizens they have so often and in so many ways so miserably failed?

I think there is an important parallel to be made between the assumed merits of local government and another often carelessly-praised concept, “family values.” Families, when you are lucky enough even to have one, can be wonderful things. But for every exemplary, delightful, helpful family, there is at least one where anger, drunkenness, abuse, prejudice, and even mental illness set the tone, to say nothing of poverty. You don’t build a better country by ignoring these things. While it is not government’s role to replace families, it is certainly its role to intervene, educate, assist, and even prosecute where appropriate. And this same kind of oversight is one of the federal government’s most important responsibilities vis-a-vis the states. Its abdication can only be destructive for the well-being of millions.