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I was greeted this morning by the spectacle of a President calling refugees and immigrants “animals” on Twitter. But that wasn’t the truly disgraceful thing. I scrolled through my Twitter feed, hoping. Would this be the day? After all, no one had done it so far. Not in the New York Times, not the Post, not CNN, not MSNBC. Perhaps, perhaps. This would finally be the day, wouldn’t it?
I mean, this was over the line. And how many more lines are there to be crossed? So I checked, and checked. Chris Hayes, Jake Tapper, Beto (I think), pundit after pundit, politician after politician. They were vehement in their outrage and condemnation. But there was something missing. The most important something of all, as Orwell taught us — his test, which we’re still flunking.
Not a single person I could see had the courage, grace, sense, or wisdom to use the simple but accurate word, concept, idea, historical lesson, “fascism.” (In fact, looking at my Twitter feed, I was the only one who did. And nobody much seemed to care. Don’t cry for me, dummy. Cry for you.) Because all of this raises a simple and serious question. It’s an ugly and inelegant one — but I think it has to be asked at this point — so forgive me.
Are Americans (really) so stupid they don’t even know fascism when they see it? Is that where we are? Who we are? Why the world laughs at us, not knowing whether to be horrified, amused, or entertained? Why is it not a single person of repute has used the word “fascism” to describe what’s happened to America…even on the day the Prez literally says the word “animals”?
After all, fascism has very simple, very complete criteria. What are those criteria? Americans pretend as if this is some kind of grand philosophical endeavor…some kind of post-modern game…”hey, the truth of fascism can’t be known!” And yet the checklist for what fascism is — and what it isn’t — couldn’t be simpler. Insult people who disagree with you? You’re just a jerk, not a fascist. Use racial slurs? You’re a racist, and you could be a fascist. But support, call for, encourage, do all, or indeed just enough, of the following things — demonization, dehumanization, collective punishment and blame, expropriation, dispossession, genocide…atrocity…institutionalize them in the hands of the state…and my friend, congratulations: you are a fascist.
None of this is complicated. None of this is rocket science. It is very, very simple and straightforward. Even children can understand, which is why such a checklist is taught in schools around the globe, and in better ones, through historical example. Around the world, more or less everyone knows: this is what fascism is. (Hence A few years ago, when Trumpism erupted, many of us — women, minorities, those who’d lived through such collapses before — quickly pointed out that this was fast meeting all the criteria for fascism.)
How come Americans don’t seem to know what fascism is? Are they really that incredibly, amazingly, jaw-droppingly stupid, ignorant, helpless, dumb? If the entire rest of the world — literally even schoolchildren — know fascism when they see it…why don’t Americans? Sure, you can point out exceptions…North Korea, Iran, etc. But you’re only just digging a deeper hole for Americans, aren’t you?
Let me ask it again. If the entire world, beginning with it’s children, knows fascism when they see it…why don’t Americans? The adults? Not just “average” Americans — but their luminaries, their so-called best and brightest? Their leaders? Thinkers? Intellectuals? What does it say when a man like Chris Hayes, the horn-rimmed golden boy of feel-good liberalism, with his own media empire…apparently doesn’t know fascism when he sees it? What the? Did he not go to grade school? Was he educated in the 1300s? When a single New York Times or Washington Post columnist doesn’t?
What does it tell us when literally nobody in the American public sphere uses the word “fascism” to refer to a President calling the refugees he’s putting in “detainment centers” (or are they concentration camps?) fascism? What does that say, my friends? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know and understand. So here is my answer, and you are of course free to agree or disagree, and judge for yourself.
There are three possibilities Americans don’t appear to know what fascism is, when it’s right before their eyes. They really are that stupid, they’re playing dumb, or they’re cowards. None of those, of course, is a good thing to be.
The first is that they really are this stupid. Sorry, I don’t want to be mean. But this is not a game. This is reality. So let’s take it at face value. Americans really are so amazingly, shatteringly stupid they don’t fascism when it’s literally bellowing the word “animals” right before their eyes. Why would that be? Well, American education is notoriously shabby. Americans aren’t taught the checklist above — not really. It’s glossed over, in a kind of triumphal hero story, where Americans were the good guys and the Nazis the bad guys. That’s true, in s naive way. But the Nazis were inspired by America’s apartheid state and race laws — they literally studied slavery and Jim Crow to do the repellent job of figuring out how to subjugate the Jews and others they hated. Americans aren’t taught the truth of fascism because it implicates them, too. So why would anyone be surprised Americans are too stupid to know what fascism is when it’s right before their eyes?
I don’t buy that Americans are that stupid, though — at least all of them, enough of them or the best of them. I’m pretty sure that a guy like Chris Hayes or all those New York Times columnists, not to mention everyone with an Ivy League Degree, knows exactly what fascism is. They’re not stupid. They’re something else, something worse, less moral, less worthy. They’re cowards. Having been to plenty of Manhattan dinner parties with such folks (shudder), you can bet they say the word “fascist” around the table to their friends and chuckle. But they won’t dare to utter the word in public. Why not?
So the second reason that Americans won’t say the word “fascism” is that they’re playing dumb. And they’re playing dumb because that’s what Americans do. Everyone’s told to play dumb in America. Why do you think we have so many open secrets? Why do you think everything’s so dysfunctional? Why do you think we play along happily and smile when everything’s falling apart? Why we’re so depressed, unhappy, anxious, torn apart, mistrusting?But play dumb long enough, and the charade is indistinguishable from the truth. Play dumb long, hard, and furiously enough, and dumb is all there is left. Doesn’t that seem like America to you? A place where all the smart people are always wrong — precisely because nobody’s ever held accountable for anything at all?
Don’t you think it’s absurd at this point that a Rachel Maddow or a Chris Hayes or who-have-you-columnist-pundit-politician…none of them have said the word fascism…once? I do. I think that Orwell’s rolling his eyes at the colossal, epic stupidity of playing dumb with fire. Because what ends happening is that you burn your house down.
Playing dumb is a kind of cowardice, my friends — especially when the fate of a country is at stake. When the demagogues are ripping your society to shreds…and you’re playing dumb…that’s exactly the kind of cowardice that history laughs at (and remembers). And that’s where America’s leaders are, mostly — pundits, politicians, and so on. They know the rewards cowardice outstrips the costs of fierce courage, hard truth, genuine resistance. Nobody ever made a buck by telling the truth in America — but play coy and dumb, and the establishment will rain money on you.
Hence, the lunatic, baffling, astonishing spectacle of nobody — not a single person in public life — saying the word fascism, on the day the Prez calls people “animals.” Just politely tiptoeing around the issue like someone farted at a snow-white Manhattan dinner table. How genteel!
So my third reason that Americans won’t say the word fascism is that they’re cowards. Maybe not you, or maybe you — judge for yourself. What would have made America’s richest and most powerful people…cowards? A guy like Chris Hayes or a Rachel Maddow knows that if they say fascism — they’re crossing a line their corporate overlords, which is to say their paymasters, don’t want crossed. Because guess what’s implicated in fascism? Capitalism.
If they say capitalism, then the whole system is brought into question. Where does fascism come from? From frustrated, enraged middle classes. Declining, falling into poverty and hopelessness. Disappointed by what, though? It can’t have been socialism, because there is none. It can’t have been democracy — because they voted for all this. The only real culprit left is capitalism.
And that brings me back to American education. When I say: “capitalism’s imploding into fascism”, people in literally every country in the world that I can think of get what I mean. In Chile. In Pakistan. In France. In Germany. The only place I’m met with dull stares and dumbstruck expressions — not to mention outrage and denial — is…America.
Why is that? Because Americans aren’t educated about the reality of how fascism arose to begin with. It didn’t come from Germans reading too much Nietzsche. Fascism arose because Germany was forced to repay debts it didn’t have the money for to the UK and France, over World War I. And then capitalism’s greatest crisis hit — the Great Depression. A middle class on the brink plunged into poverty and ruin. Bang! Hitler rose, the Nazis seized power, the throngs applauded them on the street — the rest is history’s darkest chapters.
Does any of that sound like America to you? An imploding middle class turning to a demagogue for safety, for superiority, by demonizing and dehumanizing those below them in long-standing social hierarchies? By finding a sense of supremacy and power again by turning barely-people into unpeople? It should.
And yet Americans aren’t taught the central role of capitalism in fascism — and it is central. Fascism is a thoroughly modern creation, which didn’t exist before capitalism. That is because it takes capitalism to produce a middle class, aspiring upwards, to become capitalists — and to perpetually disappoint them, too, leaving them at the edge of perpetual ruin, never paying them a penny more, always charging them increasing amounts for basics, like healthcare or education. When those two trends reach their breaking point, a middle class buckles and implodes — and wham! Fascism arises.
Americans aren’t that fascism comes from capitalism because, of course, capitalism is to America what communism was to the Soviet Union. A totem, an idol, an all-powerful solution, a universal solvent. Something very much like a deity, who can’t be questioned. Capitalism is infallible in America. It is immaculate. It is the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed, all in one. Capitalism is the answer to all problems. People starving? No insulin? Kids getting shot at school? More capitalism! That’s gotta be the way!
But when you’re busy brainwashing a society that capitalism is to it what communism was to the Soviet Union…how are you going to tell the story of capitalism imploding into fascism? How are you going to teach anyone the chief danger of capitalism, which is that financial crises produce depressions, which spark fascist movements? Capitalism is infallible, after all. And fascism is a pretty major failing to have.
It must come from somewhere, else then. It can’t come from implosive capitalism. Where does it come from? Hmmm…nobody knows. Wait…is it even really “fascism”?
And then we’re at the point Orwell warned us of. When nothing is called by its name, anything can everything, everything can be nothing, and so anyone can be no one. Who is a no one? An animal, of course. Who’s that? Anyone that the most violent man says is.
That’s where America is today, right at this moment, the day the President called people “animals”, and literally not a single person in America’s public sphere said the word “fascism” in response. Orwell’s laughing. Marx is chuckling. The Nazis are all smiling — the dead ones, and the living ones. And we? We, my friends, are grinning, like idiots, whooping and cheering, as we play dumb with fire, and our own house burns down.
So let me ask you again. Are Americans so stupid they don’t even know fascism when they see it?