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Covering 'Fascist' America
What's the role of journalism in the face of inflammatory claims?
By Roy Peter Clark (more by author) Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute
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Is America on the road to becoming a fascist state?
If so, what should journalists do about it?
Those questions come in response to an elaborate argument in Naomi Wolf’'s latest book "The End of America," an argument she summarized in a recent C-SPAN interview. I caught a piece of that interview and heard her use the word "fascism" to describe her fear of where post 9/11 America is heading. Wolf's use of the term is not just name-calling, like Rush Limbaugh's "femi-nazi," or the more current "Islamo-fascism." She is dead serious, subtitling her book "a citizen's call to action."
The question for journalists and the citizens they serve is whether "fascist" is an accurate and appropriate description of the transformation of the American government since 9/11; or whether it is such an irresponsible and insensitive use of loaded language that it requires us to challenge the author — not just quote her.
Having studied the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, from Mussolini to Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pinochet, Wolf sees some common signposts on the road to tyranny, compiling a 10-step program for recognizing emerging fascism within a democratic society. Each of the steps becomes a chapter title, so if you want to be the new Fuhrer all you have to do is:
Invoke an external and internal threat
Establish secret prisons
Develop a paramilitary force
Subject ordinary citizens to surveillance
Infiltrate citizens' groups
Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
Target key individuals
Restrict the press
Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as "treason"
Subvert the rule of law.
You can imagine the examples she uses to show the congruence between these historic expressions of fascism and the actions and policies of the Bush/Cheney administration. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue for or against the points she makes in her indictment. Instead, I'd like to call attention to the dangers of loose language (as I've done in the past with Bush's use of "crusade" or MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad).
A word like "fascism," derived from an Italian word meaning a "bunch" or "bundle," carries a specific historical and political meaning, but over the course of a century now bears a heavy freight, a cargo of associations so overpowering it may have lost its ability to be tested by argument and evidence.
Let me offer a different example, the word "holocaust." I choose it because Wolf asserts, "I had to include Nazi Germany in my scrutiny of repressive governments. Many people are understandably emotionally overwhelmed when the term 'Nazism' or the name 'Hitler' is introduced into the debate. As someone who lost relatives on both sides of my family in the Holocaust, I know this feeling."
Now "holocaust" is an ancient word that denotes the act of "burning something completely," as in a ritual sacrifice. By the 1950s "Holocaust" began to be used to describe the suffering of the Jews under the genocidal machinations of the Third Reich. My guess is that Wolf has heard "right to life" adherents describe millions of abortions as "the Holocaust of our time." I bet that Wolf, as a supporter of women's rights and legal abortion, would detest that use of the word "holocaust."
While the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary supports the use of "holocaust" to describe something such as the effects of nuclear war, opinion shifts when it is used by extension to describe the effects of famine, drought, or disease. The AHD defines "fascism" 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."
In his book "Interpretation of Fascism," scholar A. James Gregor argues that the term "fascism" has been used so promiscuously that it has lost its meaning except as a generic "term of abuse." He adds that without critical analysis, it has not been helpful to use the word "fascist" to describe a long list of complaints that include "racism, genocide, oppression, anti-feminism, and homophobia."
Wolf's book is full of analysis, some of which any neutral critic would find persuasive. But in addition to her unwise dependence upon words like "fascism," her argument suffers from an affliction that a Shakespeare professor of mine called "Fluellenism." Fluellen was a comic character in the play "Henry V" who speaks in a funny accent, and whose elaborate similes are misunderstood. Near the end of the play, he compares the young King Harry of Monmouth to Alexander the Great. When challenged, he argues that Harry was from Monmouth and Alexander from Macedonia, and that there are rivers in both places, and that salmon swim in both rivers. In other words, the associative imagination lets everyone, including fools and rogues, compare anyone to anything, with little attention to degree.
Can we find comparisons between Bush and Mussolini? Probably. But we can just as easily compare him to Lincoln or Elvis or Ronald McDonald.
My passion for this topic comes from an experience I had in graduate school in the early 1970s. Allard Lowenstein, a brilliant anti-war congressman from my home district in New York, gave a lecture at Stony Brook University on Long Island. America was still mired in Vietnam, Richard Nixon was still president, Watergate was up ahead of us, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were terrible recent memories, a group of National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State. In other words, things sucked.
Lowenstein, who would be murdered himself by a crazed assassin, answered an accusation by a student that America was becoming a fascist state. The congressman disagreed, arguing that, in spite of America's terrible problems, to call America fascist was to misunderstand both America and fascism. Another student stood up and threw something at Lowenstein. It turned out to be a water balloon, but in an era of political assassinations, it was a frightening moment.
The balloon hit the lectern and splattered some water on the speaker, who, with the help of a professor, straightened himself out. He then said something like this: "What do you think would happen in a fascist state to a protesting student who threw a water bomb at a government official? Do you think he would be able to sit down in his seat and quietly listen to the rest of the talk?" The audience burst into applause. (Note by email@example.com: "What a bout the student at a Fouth Florida University that was tassered, repeatedly with 50,000 volts (sp) for asking a question
A few years later I was in St. Petersburg, and Ronald Reagan was running for president. He was greeted by admirers in a downtown rally, and there were protesters on hand with signs comparing Reagan to Hitler and Republicans to Fascists. With the political savvy that marked his presidency, Reagan called attention to the sign and said something like, "If it wasn’t for my generation, young man, you might really be living under fascism."
Finally, I am struck by the narrowness of the audience Naomi Wolf's 10 theses might persuade. Who would be swayed by the argument that America is heading toward fascism -- except those who already believe that? How much more persuasive is the argument of a Francis Fukuyama, who, in his book "America at the Crossroads," argues against the abuses of the neoconservative movement he helped create.
Which leads me to these bits of advice for journalists covering politics and elections at such a troubling time:
Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling.
Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.
Challenge any language and assertions that are fraught with emotional and historical weight. (One morning many years ago on NBC's "Today" show, a celebrity guest kept calling The New York Times "Pravda," and host Edwin Newman showed him the door.)
Challenge any language that sounds like a slogan: right to life, right to choose, cut and run, mission accomplished, freedom on the march.
Analyze political language as part of your reporting process. This is one of the strategies that make "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" so popular and persuasive. They pay close attention to the language of public figures, and, through satire and humor, reveal the "truthiness" of it.
Learn the complex relationship between political corruption and language abuse by reading "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell.
Give special weight to sources and analysts who do not adhere slavishly to a particular ideology. Look for the long time member of the NRA who favors some restrictions on gun ownership. Look for the feminist who is troubled by some of the consequences of legal abortion. People willing to reflect upon and question some of their own normal affinities can offer powerful testimony.
Do not just quote political metaphors and analogies, but test them. Is Iraq another Vietnam? Would leaving Iraq be akin to Chamberlain’s accommodations to Hitler through the Munich Pact?
[What do you think when you hear someone like Naomi Wolf comparing America to a fascist state? If you were reporting about her arguments and claims, how would you proceed?]