(My column for June 2013…)
Last time, we started exploring the concept of “fascism” – in fact, we barely scratched the surface. It’s a fascinating topic that one could explore for years – but my interest in the topic is more practical and immediate. Does fascism, in all its brutal and vicious glory, stand any chance of taking hold now, here, in America – and if so, is there anything we can do to prevent it?
To address such questions, I think I have found a metaphor that might be useful.
If we think of fascism as a disease – an abnormal condition that makes the “body politic” act in bizarre, unnatural, and destructive ways – we can look at it through the lenses of epidemiology and public health. How does it start? How does it spread? What are the conditions that encourage or impede its development? And what kinds of ongoing measures can we take to avoid catching the disease in the first place?
So the answer to “Could America turn fascist?” is “Yes, of course, at any time.” Like herpes, the fascism “virus” is always present, lurking, just waiting for its chance to emerge. Our time is not really all that different from any other in this respect. Usually, the “immune system” of the social organism is sufficient to prevent its gaining a serious foothold. But when the organism is put under stress (as is certainly happening now in many countries), the virus can flourish and spread.
What is this “immune system”? It has many parts, and operates at many levels. At the level of national governance, for example, we have organizations such as the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others that work within the system to address many of the individual “symptoms” that commentators like Naomi Wolf have identified, such as restrictions on personal liberties, encroachment of privacy, and so on. Supporting the work of such organizations is an immensely valuable way to fight the development of fascism. A free, independent, and alternative press is certainly part of this “immune system” – which is why people are rightly alarmed to see protofascists like the Koch brothers contemplating the takeover of major newspapers. America’s pluralistic and multicultural society is another preventive factor, countering the fascist impulse to enforce cultural uniformity and ideological purity. The struggles to reduce corporate power, revitalize local economies, combat racism and sexism, encourage cross-cultural interaction, and strengthen democracy are all part of this multi-pronged effort, though the individuals and organizations involved may not see themselves as explicitly “counter-fascist.”
But perhaps the most important preventive measures are those that can be taken at the personal level. The fascist state cannot develop without a fascist society, and a fascist society depends on individuals internalizing its key qualities – fearfulness, suspicion, the lack of empathy, unquestioning obedience, arrogant nationalism, the reliance on force. We can refuse, in our everyday lives, to let such traits manifest themselves, and instead make a conscious effort to express their opposites. If a fascist state can be characterized as merciless, for example. then showing compassion and simple human kindness is itself an innately counter-fascist act. Fascism cannot tolerate creativity and imagination, since it dare not allow its citizens to imagine alternatives to its rule – so fostering creative thought and expression is likewise counter-fascist. (How many more such examples can you devise?)