Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, January 10, 2005

Are we fascists yet?

Saw this on the talk.origins newsgroup:

From the NY Times (registration req.)
Warning From a Student of Democracy's Collapse


Published: January 6, 2005

FRITZ STERN, a refugee from Hitler's Germany and a leading scholar of
European history, startled several of his listeners when he warned in a
speech about the danger posed in this country by the rise of the
Christian right. In his address in November, just after he received a
prize presented by the German foreign minister, he told his audience
that Hitler saw himself as "the instrument of providence" and fused his
"racial dogma with a Germanic Christianity."

"Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and
politics," he said of prewar Germany, "but many more were seduced by
it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that
largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas."

Dr. Stern's speech, given during a ceremony at which he got the prize
from the Leo Baeck Institute, a center focused on German Jewish
history, was certainly provocative. The fascism of Nazi Germany belongs
to a world so horrendous it often seems to defy the possibility of
repetition or analogy. But Dr. Stern, 78, the author of books like "The
Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic
Ideology" and university professor emeritus at Columbia University, has
devoted a lifetime to analyzing how the Nazi barbarity became possible.
He stops short of calling the Christian right fascist but his decision
to draw parallels, especially in the uses of propaganda, was

"When I saw the speech my eyes lit up," said John R. MacArthur, whose
book "Second Front" examines wartime propaganda. "The comparison
between the propagandistic manipulation and uses of Christianity, then
and now, is hidden in plain sight. No one will talk about it. No one
wants to look at it."

"Many of my classmates found the organized party experience, which
included a heavy dose of flag waving and talk of national strength,
very exhilarating," said Dr. Stern, who lost an aunt and an uncle in
the Holocaust. "It was something I never forgot."

"There was a longing in Europe for fascism before the name was ever
invented," he said. "There was a longing for a new authoritarianism
with some kind of religious orientation and above all a greater
communal belongingness. There are some similarities in the mood then
and the mood now, although also significant differences."

He warns of the danger in an open society of "mass manipulation of
public opinion, often mixed with mendacity and forms of intimidation."
He is a passionate defender of liberalism as "manifested in the spirit
of the Enlightenment and the early years of the American republic."

"The radical right and the radical left see liberalism's appeal to
reason and tolerance as the denial of their uniform ideology," he said.
"Every democracy needs a liberal fundament, a Bill of Rights enshrined
in law and spirit, for this alone gives democracy the chance for
self-correction and reform. Without it, the survival of democracy is at
risk. Every genuine conservative knows this."


"The Jews in Central Europe welcomed the Russian Revolution," he said,
"but it ended badly for them. The tacit alliance between the neo-cons
and the Christian right is less easily understood. I can imagine a
similarly disillusioning outcome."

Hey, the Professor is doing the Godwinning, not me.
It's fashionable in some circles to call anything one doesn't like fascism, to the point where even mentioning fascism or comparing anyone to Nazis is regarded as having ended the discussion on Usenet, a rule known as Godwin's Law.

However, there are legitimate cases of this, despite it being cheapened as a tactic by abuse of the left. One is when the world is indeed doing something similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s. Did you think it was a one-off aberration? This is something humans do, again, and again.

George Santayana, an American philosopher recalled largely only for this comment, although he did a lot more besides, once said,
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
We seem to be so condemned, if only because we fail to generalise. We think that the danger comes from the trappings and appurtenances of Nazism, as found in Neo-Nazi movements or Christian Reconstructionism. But the danger is wider than that - it lies in the closing of society to variation. In the dangers of jingoistic patriotism that finds freedom itself dangerous. It lies in looking for a decisive leader, rather than a thoughtful one.