Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Book Notes: American Fascists

Probably a good rule of thumb is that, if you can tell from the title what the thesis of the book is, there's no real reason to read the book. Alas, I still read: "American Fascists: The Religious Right and its War on America" by Chris Hedges. There do seem to be a lot of "war on America" books these days. Maybe the point is to get all of America thinking you're on their side and willing to buy your book!

As the title makes abundantly clear, American Fascists posits that the Christian Right (also called the Dominionists, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, etc.) are seeking to establish a theocracy in America, and in doing so, share some key tenets with fascism. The author spends each chapter detailing in a journalistic style some fundamentalist retreat, prayer meeting, television show, or book, and then explains how it dovetails neatly with fascism. So, for instance, fascists were hung up on masculinity and so are most patriarchal religions. His overall argument is that, just as one cannot argue in a civil way with fascists, and generally you have to meet them in the street with brickbats, liberals will never see eye-to-eye with fundamentalists and so they have to simply oppose them with all their force.

Before I criticize the book, let me say that I am of the opinion that the fusing of religion and politics is disastrous in an open society. There are reasons that the earth's theocracies are economically and politically retrograde, and the US probably shouldn't join them. Also, I would agree that the anecdotes Hedges gives do not make me want to become a fundamentalist any time soon. I actually laughed out loud at one hyperbolic quote from a preacher that stem cell research is "state-supported cannibalism".

That said, how much less hyperbolic is it to say that the fundamentalist Christians who take part in the democratic process are akin to fascists? In the first place, the correspondences don't work out very well. So, fascists believe that certain races are destined to rule over other races; while fundamentalists believe that the people who are saved will inherit the earth while the unsaved will not: is that really a convincing analogy? Much of the book boils down to the fact that cultural reactionaries tend to think alike, but when two groups have very different political programs... well, it's not particularly illuminating to run them together for the sake of polemic.

Secondly, much of the argument relies on saying that, okay Christians aren't doing X yet, but oh man, they're going to in the future. Everything they do now is supposedly building a "springboard" for them to actually do what fascists do at some future date. Okay, well, if an arsonist burns the House of Congress and Rick Warren tries to take over the government in response, let's go buy a gun. But, until that happens, this argument amounts to: "They want to do these things, but they're not openly saying so." Oh, okay.

Also, as someone who studies the history of ideas, I don't tend to see ideas as these things that plug into someone, like a battery in a toy, and power them in some totally undiluted form. Ideas are adapted to circumstances. Fundamentalists might believe, for example, that adulteresses are evil (I don't know if they do- it's a hypothetical); but when people's ideas clash with reality, the ideas rarely emerge unchanged. When someone's best friend turns out to have cheated on her husband, most people modify their original hypothesis. In other words, I don't believe we can say, "12 million people read a certain book, so that's the way they think". This is sort of key to understanding intellectual history.

Ideas have to meet the road, so to speak. And for the fundamentalists to actually install a dictatorship, if they even want to, they would need to wage a lot of revolutionary violence. Aside from the fact that they don't seem to want violence, a group of suburbanites is not going to bring the brickbats. Come the Revolution, these people will twist their ankle and go home to put ice on it. That's certainly also true of the College Marxists who still talk about Revolution.

I think the biggest problem is that Hedges supports open democracy, just not with these people. Unfortunately, though, you need to work with the fellow citizens you've got. By all accounts, Christian fundamentalists want to take part in the democratic process. This means they have to give up the dream of a theocracy. But, if one disagrees with their ideas about "Christian government", and I certainly do, then by all means, engage with those ideas. Don't pretend that they're really espousing fascism and then argue against fascism- that's stacking the deck, to say the least.

And there seems to be a real market for books like this. Instead of actually engaging with people's ideas and disagreeing vehemently, people would apparently rather hear that liberals are fascists, and the religious right are fascists, Obama is a Stalinist, Hillary Clinton is a murderer, Bush is a war criminal, and every one else in public office is a traitor. The point is not to make a case for anything; it's just to argue that your political opponent is a Really Bad Person, and so we need to oppose them, you know, for the good of democracy. The goal, to be blunt, is dehumanization of the Other.

The fact that there are a lot of books like this suggests to me that people desperately want to believe that they have moral clarity because they're really fighting fascists or Stalinists. My relatives buy these things by the bucketload, all arguing that Democrats are anti-America. I call this sort of thing "Wiemar Nostalgia"; it's a romantic idealization of... cultural civil war, basically. Well, or just a yearning for actual civil war.

The end result is exactly what we see in public opinion polls: a certain percentage of Americans remain convinced that the other side is a bunch of Really Bad People roughly akin to totalitarians. It's just not a workable model for a democracy. In a democracy, people have to maintain the good faith that members of the other side are reasonable human beings. Their ideas might be pernicious, but they themselves are reasonable enough to change those ideas. But, in the sort of situation you have now in the US, I suspect there can be no real progress or change of any sort. So, when problems call for immediate action, it just won't happen. This, I think, is what people mean when they talk about "polarization": things get so heated up that the only path into the open is actual violence to match the rhetorical violence. Otherwise, you have an endless stalemate. Again, I think we will not see violence, but simply a system that can do nothing, and a country that sinks deeper into the slough of despond year by year.

As for me, I can't stand reading this sort of thing any more. I'm sick to death of listening to people who are warped by bitterness and hopelessness tell me that some political figure is a Really Bad Person, or some party is made up of Really Bad People. This is perhaps why I'm sick of the Internet. I live in a world in which most people are good, at their root, even the fundamentalists. They can be misguided, yes. Often they are. But, when you ask, you find that most of them want to work for a better world, even if they disagree on how to get there. In the real world, most people love their Mom, feel for the poor and hungry, worry about pollution, and go to work every day. At some point, you have to wonder if the angry polemicists understand that they live in that world too.

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