There are epithets that decent people shy away from using. One obvious example is the use of racist, ethnic, or gender-based slurs. If you’re a decent human being, you don’t use them, because one uses them to hurt, to malign, to defame.
But it is not just slurs on one’s person that we avoid. We also avoid slurs on one’s political philosophy. Describing someone as a Nazi, for example, is rightly seen as beyond the pale. It says a person is a believer in an ideology that led to the slaughter of six million innocent people, and ignited a global war that killed millions more. Unless a person actually is a follower of Hitler’s philosophy, describing them as a Nazi is not only inaccurate, it’s pejorative. And the same is true of other discredited, vile, or simply discarded epithets, like communist1, or Maoist, or totalitarian; unless a person actually is a communist, Maoist, or totalitarian, describing them as such is simply rude, and is designed to create far more heat than light.
But sometimes, the shoe fits. There are still Nazis, after all. There are still segregationists. Still anti-Semites. Still communists. Some of these people wear their positions proudly, like the perky neo-Nazi with the swastika tattoo on her head who frequents my local convenience store.2 Most, however, hold their positions without admitting to the label that defines them – as the label itself describes a belief system that has been rejected by everyone.
This is why people who proudly use racial epithets will refuse the epithet “racist.” They are racists, of course, but they will not wear the mantle, because racism is bad, and everyone agrees on that. Of course, they may believe that people of different races shouldn’t mix, and that people of a given race are inferior to people of another race, and that people of a different race moving into a country will destroy it. But don’t call them racist – they’ll pitch a fit.
And this is, of course, the other reason decent people shy away from applying the most loaded political labels to their opponents – because they don’t want to have to have the fight. Because no matter how much your opponent says Stalin had some good ideas, calling her a Stalinist will only lead to a fight about how she isn’t one.
And yet – sometimes you simply have to call a racist a racist. If a person is advancing all the tenets of racism, then that person is in fact a racist. And standing by and pretending that person isn’t racist is playing into their hands, by allowing them the fiction that their racism is not racism, but something benign.
And that lets radicalism in through the back door, and lets decent people advance radical views without admitting to being radicals. And slowly, that makes radical views acceptable.
There is a political philosophy that you are probably familiar with. Among its core tenets are:
- Nationalism – The people of its country are special, and the founders of the nation as uniquely wise – and people of all other nations are inherently dangerous. People who do not fully assimilate are viewed as threats to be dealt with.
- Social Darwinism – Those who are poor are poor because of their own flaws and failings, and if they can’t work, they don’t deserve to eat.
- Propaganda – It uses its own media outlets (when out of power) or state-controlled media (when in power) to support its own viewpoint while ridiculing others.
- Anti-Intellectualism – It ridicules the pointy-headed intellectuals with their large words and their big plans, in favor of the simple, salt-of-the-earth man on the street, and the wisdom of the Average Joe.
- Heroism – National heroes are not just heroes, but uniquely heroic, uniquely wise. No other country’s heroes were as brilliant and crafty, and no other nation’s enemies more deserving of punishment.
- Social Authoritarianism – When people fall away from morality, the power of the state can and should be used to push them back in line.
- Militarism – The military is the best and most respectable part of the nation, and war should be supported unblinkingly whenever an enemy threatens.
- Corporatism – The power of the government can be used to intervene economically, but almost always on the side of corporations – as it believes that companies create wealth.
- Anti-Communism – Communism – usually defined as “other political philosophies” – represents an existential threat to our way of life, and must be defeated at any and all costs.
The adherents of this philosophy believe that they are saving their nation from the weak, the Communists, the intellectuals. They see their country as at a crossroads, and believe that if the wrong turn is taken, it will cease to be a great nation, and will become like all the rest of those lousy states. Because they believe that they are the saviors of their nation, they are willing to do almost anything to gain power – lie, pull dirty tricks, and resort to violence against political opponents. Indeed, in every country where this philosophy has taken hold, it has used extrajudicial action by its members to intimidate its opponents.
If you have been paying attention, you know that there is a political movement in this country that mirrors these views. Its members claim that America is a unique country, a shining city on a hill. That the Founding Fathers were wise beyond any reckoning, and that any deviation from the course they set us on is tantamount to blasphemy. That immigration (and, sotto voce, racial and gender equality) is destroying the uniqueness of the American experiment, and that we keep moving away from the good ol’ days of the 1950s to a place that would make the founders blanch in horror.
These people have their own news network that tells them what they want to hear, that lies to them brazenly, that calls their opponents socialists and secret Muslims. They mistrust intellectuals, rage against the well-educated, claim that deep thinking is un-American. They believe that the government should use its power to keep people from getting abortions, and to discourage homosexuality. They believe that the unemployed are lazy, and that they should either work, or starve.
They are worshipful of the idea of the military and of citizen militias. They do speak out against corporate greed, half-heartedly, but oppose any action that might impose limitations of corporations – and are indeed happy to support corporate welfare whenever they get the opportunity, so long as they can call it something else.
They say they are doing all of this because of the threat from socialism, which is a word that in America has become conflated with communism.
And they are most definitely using extrajudicial violence and intimidation to get their way.
In America, in 2010, these people call themselves the Tea Party. They say they are trying to get our nation back to its founding principles, deliberately using iconography from the American Revolution to stake a claim that they represent the last, best hope of Real America.
They may see themselves that way, but that is not the right way to describe them. The philosophy they endorse is a well-known one, one described by one word.
You may object to my calling the Tea Party a fascist movement. I understand. I don’t like doing so myself. But they are far closer to fascism than the modern Democratic Party is to socialism. And Democrats being socialist is an article of faith among the far right of the Republican Party.
I don’t like calling my opponents fascist. But the shoe fits – at least among the farthest of the far right, the group that has taken over the modern Republican Party. The path that the Palins and Angles and Millers and their ilk would have us take is the same that Mussolini charted for Italy. They’ve prettied it up, of course. They’ve sanded off the edges. And they’ve added the extra dimension of religion to it – the idea that we are fighting a war against Islam, which is in league with socialism, and that Christianity must be bolstered.
But that was predicted. Sinclair Lewis once wrote, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Well, my friends, fascism has come to America, flag and cross and all. And if we do not say so – if we dare not name it, for fear of riling our opponents – we let them mainstream their views. And that inaction would be far worse than any word can be.
1Note: communist, not socialist. Communism, specifically the brand that was attempted in the Soviet Union and its client states, has been tried, and it failed spectacularly; it rivals Naziism for the most evil political philosophy of the 20th century. A version of socialism, contrawise, has been made to work rather well in places like Sweden and Denmark, without the terror wrought by Stalin and his ilk. One can argue whether socialism is a good or bad political system, but it is not an inherently evil one.
2Do you think I could possibly be making that up?