What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up
"A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself" - or so Arthur Miller once said. Now it's the online media, the web logs and such. That's where facts and opinions are tossed back and fourth in an endless dialog in real time, out in the open for everyone to see. That's the public forum now. Print is just too slow, and the issues that pop up on the twenty-four hour cable political shows have already been tossed back and forth for hours and sometimes days on the web before the "big guns" pick them up.
That may be a worry for the newspapers - the cover story of the August 24th Economist is Who Killed the Newspaper? The idea there is that "the most useful bit of the media is disappearing" - but while that is a cause for concern, it's not a cause for panic, or so they say. Someone, after all, has to do the original reporting so there are things to talk about. Someone has to do the legwork, gathering information - who did what, who said what, and so forth. Their op-ed pages may now provide a secondary, late forum, summarizing and focusing points that have been roiling around the web and more immediate media for some time. The idea now is to provide, on those pages, focus and some consolidation. The primary function of newspapers thus reverts to the natural default, reporting what happened - who, what, when, where, how and generally why - although the broadcast media tells you sooner, even if in little detail. So they aren't part of the public forum, really. Miller's comment no longer applies. Newspapers - and the wire services that feed them - provide grist for the mill, so to speak. And the best newspapers do their own investigative reporting - uncovering more than anyone expected to know. And that's even more material for the national dialog, but it's the raw material. And even if it's often detailed in the way only the print media can manage, it's just that the forum where all that is discussed has moved on.
All that is by way of noting that a topic all over the place, starting perhaps two or three weeks ago, is all this new talk about fascism, specifically "Islamic fascism." What's that all about?
The Associated Press tackled that on Wednesday, August 30, here, in a classic "consolidation" background item. AP notes a new phenomenon, tracks down its origins, and does the legwork - ferreting out what key people are saying about this. Tom Raum, the Associated Press writer, works in the traditional journalistic mode - he doesn't participate in the forum. He observes it and reports on what he sees.
And what does he see? The president seems to have recast all the arguments that the Iraq war is a very good and necessary war by saying it's a key part of a "war against Islamic fascism." That's new, or in this case news. As is the news that fascism seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans. The war is unpopular. There are key elections coming up. They must think it's useful.
And the AP legwork is useful - the president first used the term earlier in August, talking about the arrest of those "liquid bomb" terrorists in the UK, and then spoke of "Islamic fascists" in a later speech in Green Bay. Add to that the White Press Secretary, Tony Snow, has been using variations of the phrase in his White House press briefings. And the very odd Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum, well on his to losing his senate seat in November, on the August 28th drew parallels between World War II and the current war against "Islamic fascism" - they both require fighting a common foe in multiple countries, so it's really the same sort of thing. And he's been using the term for months, not that it's been helping him much. Then there was Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City - previously discussed here. He said anyone who disagreed with the administration - policy, strategy or tactics - was simply trying to appease "a new type of fascism," which made such folks cowards, confused and morally bankrupt, and also stunningly ignorant of history.
That's good reporting. The new tactic is clear, and the AP poll of White House aides and Republican strategists on the outside has them all saying this "Islamic fascism" stuff is an attempt "to more clearly identify the ideology that motivates many organized terrorist groups," although no names are sourced to that. It seems to be a shift in emphasis from the general to the specific, even if there's nothing in the AP item clearly defining fascism in a specific way. But the White House stated that the president would "elaborate on this theme" in a the series of speeches starting with his own go at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City all the way through his address to the UN General Assembly on 19 September. Perhaps he'll discuss the definitions of fascism laid out by Mussolini and demonstrate the exact parallels in detail, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely this will remain general and not specific at all.
But there are folks on the records giving it a go.
There's White House spokeswoman Dana Perino - "The key is that all of this violence and all of the threats are part of one single ideological struggle, a struggle between the forces of freedom and moderation, and the forces of tyranny and extremism."
That's still a bit broad.
There's the Republican polling expert Ed Goeas, saying that depicting the struggle as against Islamic "fascists" is an appropriate definition of the war that we're in - "I think it's effective in that it definitively defines the enemy in a way that we can't because they're not in uniforms."
That's on odd definition of fascists - as people without uniforms. Mussolini had the guys in brown shirts. Goeas seems to be saying they needed something that just reeked of "bad," and this term tested well.
It's hard to see how this is moving toward the specific.
And AP chats with Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - the use of the phrase "contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community." So it's not polling well in some circles.
Then there's Dennis Ross, the Mideast adviser to both the first Bush and then Clinton, and now the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They would have to talk to him. He says he would have chosen different words -
"The 'war on terror' has always been a misnomer, because terrorism is an instrument, it's not an ideology. So I would always have preferred it to be called the 'war with radical Islam,' not with Islam but with 'radical Islam,'" Ross said.
Why even mention the religion? "Because that's who they are," Ross said. "Fascism had a certain definition. Whether they meet this or not, one thing is clear: They're radical. They represent a completely radical and intolerant interpretation of Islam."
He's very picky, isn't he?
So AP turns to a specialist in presidential rhetoric - there seems to be such people - and one is Wayne Fields, a specialist such at Washington University in Saint Louis, saying that while "fascism" once referred to the rigid nationalistic one-party dictatorship first instituted in Mussolini's Italy, it has "been used very loosely in all kinds of ways for a long time." No one cares about the details any more - "Typically, the Bush administration finds its vocabulary someplace in the middle ground of popular culture. It seems to me that they're trying to find something that resonates, without any effort to really define what they mean."
And AP taps Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, who says the "fascist" label is just a World War II thing, and is probably being used to vaguely remind us "of the lack of personal freedoms in fundamentalist countries." He thinks the effect on public opinion will be marginal - the first President Bush's 1990 kept saying Saddam Hussein was just like Hitler and was ridiculed a bit for that.
The item ends with some thoughts from Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown - the White House political gurus "probably had a focus group and they found the word 'fascist.'" It was a no-brainer - "Most people are against fascists of whatever form. By definition, fascists are bad. If you're going to demonize, you might as well use the toughest words you can." It'll do.
So that's the grist for the mill. What to make of it?
Here's some of the national dialog.
Digby over at Hullabaloo is here all over Dan Bartlett for what he said on MSNBC's Hardball. Dan Bartlett is a key advisor to the president - he got Karen Hughes' job when she became the lead on improving America's image around the world.
The problem is this transcript -
Nora O'Donnell: Dan do you agree that making an analogy to Hitler can be disproportionate with the current battles - while it's extremely important, the war on terror - comparing it to WWII is overstepping
Dan Bartlett: Absolutely not. The fascist movement from that era is very similar to the totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda and other extremists, those who are wanting to pervert a very rich tradition of peaceful religion - Islam - to accomplish a certain set of objectives.
They have taken 3,000 American lives on one single morning, they've attacked country after country after country throughout the world with a very determined ideology, they're trying to overturn governments. They took control of Afghanistan, they're trying to take control of Iraq, they're trying to take control of Lebanon and they're doing it for a very specific reason - they have territorial ambition, they want the resources, they want the nuclear weapons, they want to destroy the west.
Very similar in proportion I would argue, and many other people would argue as well. So it is a very important historical lesson for to understand today because the fight we're in today is as consequential as the fight we fought in the last century.
Digby is having none of it -
Let's think for a moment about what he's saying. If it is true that they have suddenly discovered that this threat is equal to the threat posed by the axis powers in WWII, then they have clearly failed miserably to meet such an existential threat. These monsters are allegedly attacking "country after country after country" trying to seize territory so they can take the resources and get nuclear weapons and we are sending national guard troops over to Iraq for their fourth or fifth tours instead of mobilizing the entire nation? The only sacrifice Bush has asked of the American people is to pay their taxes and spend money.
There's a lot of that in the public forum - this doesn't add up.
There's Glenn Greenwald here -
The President's supporters try to decorate their thirst for war by depicting it as some sort of compelled Churchillian defense in the face of unprecedented evil, but it is really nothing more noble than reckless warmongering of the most dangerous kind. Although Donald Rumsfeld's invocation of the "Neville Chamberlain appeasement" insult is being treated as some sort of serious historical argument, it is, in fact, the most tired, overused and manipulative cliché used for decades by the most extreme warmongers in Washington to attack those who seek alternatives to war.
In fact, though Ronald Reagan has been canonized as the Great Churchillan Warrior, back then he was accused of being the new 1938 Neville Chamberlain because he chose to negotiate with the Soviets and sign treaties as an alternative to war.
... Screaming "appeasement" and endlessly comparing political opponents to Neville Chamberlian is not a serious, thoughtful argument, nor is it the basis for any sort of foreign policy. At best, it is an empty, cheap platitude so overused by those seeking war as to be impoverished of meaning. More often than not, though, it is worse than that; it is the disguised battle cry of those who want war for its own sake, and who want therefore to depict the attempt to resolve problems without more and more new wars as being irresponsible and weak.
This same mindset - even, in some cases, the very same individuals - now launching the "Chamberlain/appeasement" insult even viewed Ronald Reagan that way because he negotiated and signed treaties with the Soviets and tried to find ways to avoid constant wars. The Cold War didn't end with wars on the Soviets but with engagement of them and treaties with them, signed by the Neville Chamberlain of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan. Those who considered Reagan a Chamberlain appeaser back then were radicals and extremists (and were viewed as such). They still are extremists, but they also happen to be the ones guiding the dominant political party in our country and they don't just want to prolong the war in Iraq but want several new wars (at least).
That's a bit shrill, but it gets to the core of the nonsense.
So who is more shrill?
Try this -
Charles Black, a longtime GOP consultant with close ties to both the first Bush administration and the current White House, said branding Islamic extremists as fascists is apt.
"It helps dramatize what we're up against. They are not just some ragtag terrorists. They are people with a plan to take over the world and eliminate everybody except them," Black said.
Or as Digby says here -
Run for your lives!
I know I don't have to spell out all he ways in which Islamic radicalism is unlike fascism. But it is worth taking a look at the writings of the guy who pretty much invented fascism, good old Benito Mussolini. He wrote a little treatise back in 1932 that spelled it all out. It's true that fascism considered itself an enemy of democracy (and Marxism) and it fetishized war and violence. And yes, one of its primary tenets was imperialism.
We can argue about whether any or all of those components are part of the "Islamo-fascist ideology," but for the sake of argument, let's agree that on some level they are. But there are a few defining characteristic of fascism - as defined by the man who made fascism a household name - that surely make Islamic radicalism something else entirely.
"... The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others -- those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after...
"… The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality - thus it may be called the "ethic" State.
"…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone."
Those two things, it seems to me, make any comparison between fascism and a loose confederation (if that) of suicidal religious fanatics spread all over the world, ridiculous. They might just as well have appropriated the phrase Mongol Hordes for all the sense it made. (Actually, Osama bin Laden has made that comparison - with the US.) Not that it will stop the wingnuts from pimping it like it's the latest teen-age fad - making sense has never been a hallmark of these people.
The funny thing is that if you look at Mussolini's definition it does fit some modern western political factions much better than Islamic radicalism. I leave it to you to figure out who they might be.
But is it really fair to quote Benito Mussolini? They don't want us to take this all too seriously, it seems. It's a word for the rubes. They eat it up.
People will buy anything if it's scary enough? Maybe so.
As for the first in the series of presidential speeches to "elaborate on this theme," the president's address before the American Legion's national convention on Thursday, August 31, provided some interesting elaborations, without much in the way of specifics.
The transcript is here here, containing things like this - "The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq."
Those are high stakes, and as Fred Kaplan says -
Does anybody believe this? If you do, then you must ask the president why he hasn't reactivated the draft, printed war bonds, doubled the military budget, and strenuously rallied allies to the cause.
If, as he said in this speech, the war in Iraq really is the front line in "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century"; if our foes there are the "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists"; if victory is "as important" as it was in Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal - then those are just some of the steps that a committed president would feel justified in demanding.
If, as he also said, terrorism takes hold in hotbeds of stagnation and despair, then you must also ask the president why he hasn't requested tens or hundreds of billions of dollars for aid and investment in the Middle East to promote hope and livelihoods.
Yet the president hasn't done any of those things, nor has anyone in his entourage encouraged him to do so. And that's because, while the war on terror is important and keeping Iraq from disintegrating is important, they're not that important. Osama Bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin. Baghdad is not Berlin. Al-Qaida and its imitators don't have the economic resources, the military power, or the vast nationalist base that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union had.
So, the speech sends the head buzzing with cognitive dissonances. There's the massively exaggerated historical analogy (which should have been obvious, if not insulting, to the World War II veterans in the audience). And there's the glaring mismatch between the president's gargantuan depiction of the threat and the relatively paltry resources he's mustered to fight it.
Such dissonances could further diminish, not revive, his support.
But he did say "fascist" - and you're supposed to be scared, and vote Republican.
After a lot of detail, Kaplan comes to a not very startling conclusion -
Not all of our enemies are fascists, and not all of our friends are democrats. The danger - really, the crisis - looming in the Middle East is not the threat to freedom and democracy but rather the threat to stability. This is the bugaboo Bush does not want to face. He has said, over and over, that his predecessors' infatuation with stability is what caused the festering stagnation and resentment that bred the terrorists who mounted the attacks of Sept. 11. "Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither," Bush said this morning. That's a matter of debate. In any event, the new danger is that Bush's neglect of stability to promote freedom will leave us with neither of those things - to the still-deeper detriment of peace: a trifecta of world misery.
There are dangers. Bush is not mustering the resources to deal with them, mainly because we do not have the resources. He needs - we need - assistance from international players who have an even greater interest in preventing Iraq from collapsing or a regional war from erupting. However, Bush will not be able to rally this assistance as long as he makes statements like, "We will take the side of democrats and reformers throughout the Middle East." To the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and others, that sounds as if Bush would take the side of people who want to overthrow their regimes. He couldn't be serious; he is, after all, friendly with those regimes. But what is he up to? What are his real intentions? Why bail him out on Iraq if he sees freedom's triumph in Iraq as the harbinger for the rise of "reformers" throughout the region?
To pursue a sound policy in the Middle East, to impede civil war and worse, would require Bush to shift gears - to drop his rhetoric on spreading some abstract concept of freedom (at least as a centerpiece) and to resume the long-standing pursuit of stability. Such a shift may be too humbling for Bush to endure. And so, as long as he keeps giving speeches on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, the cognitive dissonances will buzz ever louder.
So goes the national dialog, the conversation in the electronic open forum. The son's "everyone who opposes us is part of a giant fascist conspiracy" is going about as well as the father's "Saddam is really Hitler if you think about it." Cool buzz words - until you think about it.
They just make up stuff. They hope people react in some Pavlov's Dog way. Who are the small-brained but happy loyal dogs reacting that way? There's a reason some folks prefer cats - the 'yeah boss you're wonderful" goofy Labrador Retriever puppy can just get on your nerves.
The just make up things. Fascists, indeed.
They make up things? Try this -
Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."
Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
No one proposed anything like that, ever. It's like the fascist thing. It sounds right. People will react.
Somehow they just sound desperate.