Sunday, January 29, 2012

The roots of fascism

In a previous blog I pointed out a range of thoroughly fascist attacks on Hispanics, on blacks, and on immigrants. The parallels to German fascism of the 1930s and 40s are overwhelming. Those parallels may help us understand what is happening in the United States today.
In the 1930s Germans suffered, as did Americans, from the world wide depression that began in 1929. In addition, the Germans had been defeated in World War I. In 1914 Germans from the right and the left could not wait to sign up to fight for the Kaiser. My father and three Jewish uncles, signed up. Four years later the national dream was in shambles and Germany was defeated.
But very soon, Germans began to say: don't blame us. Someone invented what has become known as the “stab in the back” legend. It hinted darkly at the betrayal of the German military by political forces which were never clearly identified. In typical, paranoid fashion the story was that forces, not further identified, had betrayed the German people and their victorious military by suing for peace in 1918.
The German people did not blame their leaders. The Kaiser fled to Holland where he lived out a long life in a small castle. No one demanded his extradition and punishment. Field Marshall Hindenburg, one of the commanders of the German Army during World War I, was elected president of the German Republic. Instead the Germans turned on the Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies, and began killing the inmates of mental institutions.
This sorry history suggests one of the sources of fascism: a failure to blame the guilty parties for military defeat and, instead, seeking scapegoats. This unjustified exoneration of the leaders of World War I is, of course, at the same time an exoneration of the German people itself. They had trusted in their leaders; they were eager to fight for them. They could not have blamed the Kaiser or Hindenburg without confessing their own foolishness in trusting these leaders. They had approved of the war. They entered it enthusiastically. Now they wanted to forget that and so they blamed the Jews and others.
All this is a long time ago and would not be worth talking about, if the same thing were not happening in the US today. Ever since World War II we have been losing wars – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Some people keep posting stories on the Internet that our soldiers in Korea and in Vietnam were hurt by the rules of engagement. They were fighting “with one hand tied behind their back.” In the local newspaper letter column the same story begins to appear about the Iraq war: we could have won had the diplomats not prevented the military from waging a non-holds-barred fight.
In none of these cases have Americans blamed the leaders that got us into those wars. We enthusiastically elected John F. Kennedy and ignored the saber rattling and Cold War rhetoric of his inaugural speech in 1960. We elected Lyndon Johnson. Henry Kissinger one of the chief architects of the Vietnam war is still around and remains a respected celebrity. His responsibility for the debacle of Vietnam is not often mentioned. When George Bush stole the election in 2000, no one went out into the streets as Russians are doing today over a doubtful parliamentary election. Bush was reelected in 2004 (although not without some serious questions). He had widespread support among the people. No one has mentioned the possibility of blaming him or VP Cheney, or Rumsfeld, or Wolfowitz or any of that gang of super brains who got us into the Iraq war.
The reason for this reluctance is clear: if we blame our leaders we have to blame ourselves for electing or at least accepting them. The ordinary citizen who supports his or her government in time of war has to bear some responsibility if the war is lost. Americans, like the Germans in the last century, do not want to take responsibility for the terrible damage we have done to other people and to ourselves in a series of failed military adventures.
It is much more comfortable to persecute people of color, to try to conceal their contribution to America and to American culture, to make their life as miserable as possible, to try to prevent them from exercising their citizenship rights.
Speaking of poor people who get some help from the government, Rush Limbaugh, a prophet of the far right, said that he too had been poor and had been fired from jobs: “But I didn't blame anyone else for my problems. I knew that if I didn't try to solve them on my own or with the help of friends or family members, no one else was going to take care of me." Taking responsibility for oneself is thoroughly American.
Except when it comes to taking responsibility for military defeats, for failure and misery. Then we turn to fascism, and look for scapegoats among the people who bear a disproportionate burden of living in the United States.