October 16, 2006

The Dynamics of Rising American Fascism

I respectfully tip my hat to Stan Goff, and offer him my thanks. In a fascinating article that I urge you to read, "Sowing the Seeds of Fascism in America," Goff pulls together a number of underlying elements and demonstrates how they add up to a sum that ought to cause grave concern for all those who experience great anxiety when contemplating our country's future. As he also shows, our most influential elites, across the political spectrum, all reinforce different parts of this particularly American version of incipient fascism.

One of the specific developments that grounds Goff's analysis was reported by the New York Times this past July:
A decade after the Pentagon declared a zero-tolerance policy for racist hate groups, recruiting shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq have allowed "large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists" to infiltrate the military, according to a watchdog organization.
But as Goff shows, this particular story hardly occurred in a vacuum, and it feeds into immensely destructive wider political-economic factors.

Here is how he summarizes some key elements in the general mechanism toward the end of his article:
There is a kind of interlocking directorate between white nationalists, gun culture, right-wing politicians, mercenary culture (like Soldier of Fortune), vigilante and militia movements, and elements within both Special Forces and—now—the privatized mercenary forces. It is hyper-masculine, racialist, militaristic and networked.

If one simply pays attention to cultural production in the United States, especially film and video games, it is fairly easy to see that the very memes that are the cells within the body of white nationalist militarism are ubiquitous within our general cultural norms. The film genre that most closely corresponds to a fascist mind-set is the male revenge fantasy, wherein after some offense is given that signifies the breakdown of order (usually resulting in the death or mortal imperilment of idealized wives or children) in which Enlightenment social conventions prove inadequate, and the release of irrational male violence is required to set the world straight again. Any reader can list these fantasies without a cue. It is one of the most common film genres in American society.

R. W. Connell wrote in “Masculinities” (University of California Press, 1995):
In gender terms, fascism was the naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality ("the triumph of the will", thinking with "the blood") and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.
One of the most fascinating parts of Goff's discussion is his focus on the sexual and gender part of this equation: how surpassingly and bloodily violent "masculinity" is glorified and romanticized, in stark and negative contrast to a "weak," "vacillating," and ultimately useless "femininity." To see the popularized version of the "general cultural norms" that Goff mentions, you need only watch the hugely popular television series 24. Courtesy of a friend, I recently watched all of season four. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a more repellent embodiment of vicious, revenge-driven, murderous male fantasies, replete with innumerable bloody deaths and even the noxious idea that torture "works." That last idea is indisputably false, but even Hillary Clinton now repeats the lies that inflict monstrous pain, and that ultimately kill. So much for "opposition" to the rising tide of barbarism. And series like 24 are the manure out of which grows our fascist future.

Much of the outrage directed at 24 (such that can be found) focuses on the regular use of torture, and on the savage notion that torture is "effective" (and that "they deserve it," too, of course). But keeping Goff's broader analysis in mind, it is crucial to appreciate the more complex system that 24 and similar propaganda glorifies, including most especially the system of myths upon which such "entertainment" relies. Tens of millions of Americans are being conditioned every day to view an incomprehensibly violent, utterly arbitrary militarized domestic state as representing "virtue," and indeed a necessary virtue: supposedly necessary to protect us from the enemy, who is now to be found everywhere. Perhaps it's your next-door neighbor. That day, too, may not be all that far away.

Goff discusses how conservatives, neoconservatives and even many liberals retreat in the face of mounting horrors to the notion that the West, and the United States specifically, represent the "highest form" of civilization, which alleged fact therefore entitles us to embark on violent, "civilizing" missions. The general target of such missions is invariably the same. Goff served in the U.S. Army Special Forces for more than two decades, and he notes that "people who were brown and poor seemed to be the princip[al] targets of these 'special' operations." This is a long and abhorrent tradition in American history, dating (in its international version) back to the Spanish-American War and the following deadly episode in the Philippines, a campaign of murderous rage that was driven by the most virulent racism. (For the domestic version of this vicious myth, see my essay, "Myths of New Orleans.")

In the middle of his article, Goff states:
Racial attitudes are constructed around existing material advantage. This is not nearly as newsworthy as a Klan rally. It is far more important, though, as a causative agent for our social antagonisms. And there is an element of white supremacy in the mainstream discourse about the Iraq war, for example. Both liberals and conservatives articulate the notion that the U.S. has to "stay in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe." There is no recognition here of the orientalism (a white supremacist meme) that assumes the superiority of Western tutelage and the deviance (violent irrationality) of Arabs and-or Muslims. Privilege naturalizes itself. It portrays itself as an outcome of nature; and we all know that the laws of nature remain out of critical reach. Alas, that’s just how it is ... what a pity.
Toward the conclusion of his analysis, Goff writes:
We already have whole sections of America—in the former enclaves of a now deracinated working class—where hopelessness exists alongside police forces that function very like a military occupation force. Before the war, these occupation zones—filled with idled, angry, dark-skinned youths—were our middle-class nightmare, the Dark Chaos that inevitably leads us back to the patriarchal default, to militarized masculinity, and to the cultural celebration of bounty hunting and sexual revenge in feudal prisons.

Alas, the place-marker of a war on drugs—that created the largest national prison population on the planet—couldn’t create the pretext for bases in Southwest Asia, so the war on terror will have to do. The recruitment crisis that has opened the door to neo-Nazi youths entering military service was anything but a plan. The term before the war that proponents used to describe its outcome was "cakewalk."

Now even putative liberals have copped to their own version of "white man’s burden," saying (the rhetorical) we cannot "abandon Iraq," lest "we" leave behind a terrible state of disorder. And so "we" continue down that hoary, blood-drenched path of "civilizing missions."
This is why almost no one in our governing class, Republican or Democrat, can acknowledge the profound immorality embodied by the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- and why no one will seriously suggest the only moral and practical solution: Get Out Now.

Goff analyzes many of the ideas and mechanisms that have been the focus of a number of my essays. Because it connects at several points to Goff's themes, I want to repeat here my own brief retelling of the central myth that underlies this worldview, and that serves as the justification for our foreign policy, one embraced by virtually the entire political establishment. I offered that myth once again in my discussion of the foreign policy framework that explains both Vietnam and Iraq, "Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam":
Western civilization, more particularly the United States, constitutes the highest point of possible human development. It is only "freedom" and "democracy" as practiced in the West that can guarantee a future of peace. (Never mind the West's uninterrupted history of warfare within its own ranks, and never mind the West's unending, centuries-long interference with the rest of the world.)

The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
Until this myth is blasted at the foundation and rejected in its entirety, we will continue on our current path -- one that destroys ever broader swaths of the world, even as it destroys us.

Goff's article has many further points of great interest, and I commend it to you. For the moment, I will leave you with these words from Goff's friend, Steve McClure, who I think very accurately captures a large part of the perilous moment at which we find ourselves:
I hate the word fascist. It has been bandied about so much and brings up images of Storm troopers in grainy newsreels that it seems devoid of meaning. Furthermore, classical fascism was possible only in a mass society, organized along industrial lines, with one-to-many communications. Classical fascism is a reactionary modernism, a response to class struggle. Both German and Italian variants came to power after the defeat of revolutionary upsurges.

I think our own situation is very different, and a better term needs to be found that captures the unique qualities of our reactionary postmodernism. "Military police state" doesn’t quite cut it. Fascism implies policing of thought as well as bodies, today’s reaction is selective, policing bodies but allowing private speech and the empty illusions of parliamentary democracy to stand.
McClure's reference to "empty illusions" calls to mind the same kind of charade -- the identical drama of lies concealing forms that are now drained of all meaning and significance -- that I recently discussed from a different vantage point.

I will return to these themes, and to other parts of Goff's discussion, soon.

UPDATE: Much more about torture, and about the series 24, here.