Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I Am Rubber, You Are Glue

Following is my reply to a left-wing blogger ranting about a right-wing author's claim that liberals are fascists:

I swear, it's like watching two teenaged boys, both straight, arguing about which one is gayer.

Both of you appear to be having a knee-jerk reaction against the word "fascist" because it's been reduced to a snarl word that generally means "stuff I oppose" rather than referring to an Italian political movement in the 1930s.

Being a 21st-century American leftist, you equate "fascism" principally with racism and also, to a lesser degree perhaps, with vigilantism. Your opponent, Goldberg, being a 21st-century American right-winger, equates the word with socialism and totalitarianism.

In that much, you're both right. The problem is that you each appear to think it means exclusively the definition you've assigned to it, so when he calls your ideological camp "fascist," meaning collectivist and favoring a domineering government, you hear "racist vigilante" and say, "Nuh-uh! YOU'RE the fascist!" He hears that as "Nuh-uh! YOU'RE the radical, nanny-state socialist!" and denies it right back at you. This could go on forever, and neither of you would benefit.

Let's clear up a couple things that should move this debate forward. In early 20th-century European politics, the term "conservative" referred to aristocratic landowners who favored protectionist policies and an agrarian-based economy. "Liberal" referred to their political opponents--the wealthy urban factory owners, bankers, etc. who favored free trade, military growth, and imperialism, and a system in which power and status went to the rich rather than to the well-born.

These were the two political camps in power at the time. As we see in our bicameral system today, they were only able to work together on things they agreed on. Where they opposed each other, there was gridlock. Neither group represented the common people, though.

The people had their own political movements--socialism, distributism, and various other schemes for giving common workers a voice, and there was disagreement within these movements. One of the socialist sects was the Bolsheviks, which grew to become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Centered in Moscow, they wanted all other European socialists to pledge fealty to the Communists. The Fascists (in Italy) and the German Workers' Party (later the National Socialist German Workers' Party, a.k.a. "Nazis") resisted Moscow.

It was this division, not anti-socialist sentiments, that led to the Nazis persecuting German Bolsheviks. The Nazis didn't rise to power telling people they were going to murder millions of Jews. They promised--and delivered--a slew of social welfare programs like government-paid health care, education, and retirement, all to be funded by heavily taxing the rich.

Who have we heard promoting that kind of policy lately? The Republicans? The Tea Party?

"But the Nazis were racist, and the Republicans are racist, therefore Republicans, not Democrats, are Nazis! And fascist is just another word for Nazi, so Republicans are fascists! Q.E.D."

In Weimar Germany, antisemitism was at least as commonplace as animosity toward Wall Street bankers and one-percenters in general is in America today--and for similar reasons. It wasn't considered a shameful or taboo topic the way racism is seen in America today. The popular view in Germany (among gentiles, anyway) was that Jewish financiers were largely responsible for destroying Germany's economy. The actual Fascists (in Italy) weren't really all that troubled by Jews. It was at the insistence of their larger, more powerful ally, Nazi Germany, that they started persecuting Jews.

In America, we on the left enjoy this tale of Nixon's "Southern strategy" whereby all the Southern bigots used to be Democrats (Dixiecrats) and then moved en masse to the Republican Party in the 1960s. But do we also claim that all the previously non-racist Republicans likewise left the GOP for the Democrats, to get away from the racist newcomers? In truth, both parties were full of racists up until the mid-20th century when attitudes started to change--not unlike attitudes toward LGBT folk have been changing in recent years. Like antisemitism in the Weimar Republic, white racism against blacks was accepted as normal and proper among whites of both parties for a very long time.

So while American racists today are pretty heavily concentrated among the party of the right-wing, that doesn't make racism an inherently and exclusively right-wing trait. Was Kennedy a right-winger when the racists were Dixiecrats? Was FDR? What I'm saying is that today's Republicans are both right-wing AND racist, but that fact alone doesn't make racism a necessarily right-wing trait. Whether one is racist or not has nothing to do with being left- or right-wing. One can be a racist socialist...as Hitler demonstrated.

At best, then, neither of you are fascists. At worst, you're both capable of becoming such. If a third-party candidate came along addressing exactly the issues that mattered to you, ones that both Republicans and Democrats routinely ignored, and that candidate had such massive support that it looked like he had a good chance at winning and delivering on his promises, it wouldn't be easy to say, "No, I can't vote for this guy because he might be unkind to the people I don't like."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Suppressing Dissent

It just occurred to me when reading about Sophie Scholl: governments that suppress dissenting speech are making a huge strategic error. I can see why they would have an interest in silencing people who want to publicize shameful things that the government prefers to keep secret, but making an example out of the person who says, "The Supreme Leader sucks! Down with the Supreme Leader!" is counterproductive.

Chilling everyone into silence isn't the same thing as gaining support. It just creates the illusion of a supportive populace, an illusion that fools no one but the leader himself. The people still resent the leader; they just do it silently. The leader doesn't really know who his true supporters are except by their deeds of valor and voluntary sacrifice, because they sound exactly the same as his opponents.

In a society that allows free (or mostly free) speech, the leader knows who his enemies are. The more overt you allow them to be, the easier they are to monitor and, if necessary, to locate. Also, by allowing people to speak their complaints freely (so long as the words don't lead to actions of consequence), you immediately dull the edge of those complaints. "The leader can't be as horrible a tyrant as that, or you wouldn't be allowed to speak those words. REAL tyrants kill people for saying stuff like you just said."

It's for this reason that a tyrant who wishes to be effective must maintain a distinction between the military and the police, unless the populace has long been accustomed to being policed by their army. Concentration camps and other military detention facilities are for enemies of the leader. But civilian prisons and jails are for bad people. Nobody wants to be seen as a bad person. Few are sympathetic to criminals. People will protest for the release of a political prisoner from a place like Guantanamo, but a person convicted in a court of law on charges of attempted murder and conspiring with terrorists will have few friends. In this way, a tyrant can dispose of huge numbers of people. Thousands die in American prisons and jails every year, but we don't call them death camps. Thinking of the American criminal justice system as a form of genocide is considered radical, despite the fact that the poor and minorities--African-American men, especially--are incarcerated at such a higher rate than everyone else. Does anyone doubt that when you're in prison, you're twice as likely to die as when you're free?

We can learn something from Milgram's experiment here. If an armored troop transport rolled down the street with loudspeakers blaring an announcement that all [choose a minority group] are being rounded up and should immediately surrender themselves for a merciful execution, there'd be a battle. Even people who aren't members of the group would be shooting from their windows. The soldiers or police would be regarded as invaders in that instance. But if it's done under the pretense that those people have done something wrong, it suddenly becomes more acceptable. That is, if a few police officers show up at the homes of all the members of a particular religion to arrest them on warrants of violating tax laws or some obscure ordinance about moral turpitude, nobody will interfere.

Likewise, if armed government agents went into a slum and ordered everyone to vacate their homes so the government could bulldoze them and build expensive homes for rich people who would pay more in taxes, there would be resistance. People would fight to keep from being removed. But if the government just raised the taxes on the slum properties enough, a lot of the residents would leave because they couldn't pay. Their homes would fail to sell, and eventually the government would seize the abandoned properties. Those who remained would fall behind in their tax payments. Nobody's going to bat an eye at a bunch of "tax protesters" or "deadbeats" or "slumlords" who were millions of dollars behind on their property taxes having their homes foreclosed on by the county. And then when those people are out on the street, nobody's going to bat an eye at them being arrested for vagrancy.

As such, the successful tyrant is one who can not only convince his people that they are free, but can convince his victims (or at least all witnesses to the victimization) that they got what they deserved. A successful tyrant convinces his people that tyranny is justice.