I'm Old Enough to Remember When the Epithet 'Fascist' Had Meaning

Nothing gets me more angry than the looney know-nothings who toss epithets like 'fascist' and 'communist' at our president, Democrats and liberals, among others. Never mind that the two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the numb nuts who misuse these terms are so criminally ignorant of history they don't seem to realize that fascism and communism are ideologies, not just words on a placard. Many millions have suffered, died and fought over these ideas, which ruled much of the world in the last century. Their legacy, which still lingers, is not to be taken lightly.

Besides, those who hurl these loaded words like curses, are diminishing their value much like the overuse of the F-word diminishes its worth. But I am reminded of my Uncle Sam, of whom I've written, for although he never used such a word, one of his favorite epithets was "fascist." Which he used freely and for good reason.

A non-card carrying socialist, Sam spat the word fascist like an expletive at radio commentators in the 1940s (like Gabriel Heatter and H.V. Kaltenborn) when he thought they were not sufficiently anti-Nazi or pro-FDR. But that was a time when fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan threatened to engulf the rest of the civilized world. Do the loonies know that our allies in the struggle against fascism included the communist Soviet Union?

The U.S. came late to the fight because of the American tradition of isolationism, the influence of right-wing commentators who wanted no part of a Roosevelt war, ugly memories of World War I and the rise of the German-American Bund and its allies. Ironically, the earliest and most ardent anti-fascists in Spain, Italy and Germany, were socialists, social democrats and communists.

In those days fascism had a toehold in the U.S., partly because it was virulently anti-communist. And communism seemed the greater threat after World War I, when the then attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, rounded up suspected "Reds" who supported the aggressive new labor movement and sympathized with the new socialist Soviet state before it fell to Stalin. Socialists and unions gained strength through the '30s, when the U.S. seethed with discontent during the worst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal, which helped save American capitalism, was nevertheless seen by Republicans and big business as socialist and communist. They seemed to be justified in their fear of the left, for many New Deal programs, like the Federal Writers Project, made communists and socialists welcome. And films like The Grapes of Wrath were sympathetic toward the left.

The backlash from the right was inevitable as strikes and the militancy of labor unions -- like the International Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," the United Mine Workers, and the United Auto Workers, which engaged in sit-down strikes that took over factories -- erupted in bloodshed. And clashes between workers and the law or goons hired by companies.

All this coincided with ominous events abroad -- Francisco Franco's right-wing overthrown of the infant Spanish Republic, Benito Mussolini's takeover of the disheveled Italian government and, of course, Adolph Hitler's unimpeded German expansion, seen by many as a bulwark against the Soviets. Some Americans volunteered to fight Franco, and Picasso depicted the horror of the unprecedented fascist air attacks on civilians Spain with "Guernica."

Classical fascism, according to dictionary definitions, is a "radical and authoritarian national political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation on corporatist perspectives; values and systems." In Germany, Italy and Spain, dictatorships were established with the help and power of the military and the dominant corporations. All were one-party military dictatorships, which promised to bring order to end the chaos, unemployment and runaway inflation of the struggling democracies that were snuffed out. But none matched the Nazis' brand of fascism in their brutality -- towards Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other minorities -- with their ideology of racial purity and Hitler's single-minded ambition to dominate all of Europe.

As the misnamed National Socialists -- the Nazis -- gained power while the U.S. and congressional witch hunters worried more about communists, prominent writers like Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 book, It Can't Happen Here, (also a movie), parodied the idea that fascism could come to America. The prominent Louisiana politician, then Sen. Huey Long, was quoted as saying that fascism would come to America wrapped in the American flag.

But that idea really came in a 1938 sermon a prominent Professor of Divinity at Yale, Halford E. Luccock, who according the New York Times, told his audience, "When and if fascism comes to America it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called 'Americanism.' He continued:

"The high-sounding phrase 'the American way' will be used by interested groups, intent on profit...For never, probably, has there been a time when there was a more vigorous effort to surround social and international questions with such a fog of distortion and prejudice and hysterical appeal to fear. We have reached a new low in a congressional investigation....to whip up fear and prejudice against many causes of human welfare, such as a concern for peace and the rights of labor to bargain collectively."

More recently, in the 2008 presidential campaign, when fundamentalist candidate Mike Huckabee emphasized his Christianity, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul recalled Lewis' line that fascism would come to America wrapped in a flag and "carrying a cross." Paul opposed the war in Iraq and the sharp increase in executive power and internal spying, the jailing without cause of people deemed as enemies. It is worth remembering here President Eisenhower's farewell message to the nation in 1960, in which he warned " against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Despite the end of the cold war, the American military -- with a larger budget than that of the next 15 military powers combined -- remains with corporate America a formidable more powerful and dominant than it was 50 years ago and its "unwarranted influence" has never been seriously challenged. A fearful Congress has rarely challenged that "complex," and I doubt that any president would survive such a challenge.

Finally, one of America's leading thinkers, Noam Chomsky, who has been more right about America's role in the world than most experts, told an audience of 1,000 in Madison, Wis., on April 12, that he recalls the rise of Hitler, who promised to restore order and prosperity in Germany. "I have the dread sense of the dark clouds of fascism gathering" here. "The level of anger and fear is like nothing I can compare in my lifetime." He sympathized with the frustrations of some the tea baggers, who have seen their incomes decline while the recession deepened.

"The colossal toll of the institutional crimes of state capitalism," he said. "Is what is fueling the indignation and rage of those cast aside. They want answers. They are hearing answers from only one place, Fox, talk radio and Sarah Palin." But based on recent polls, the tea baggers, who are nearly all white, are mostly Republicans who, along with the blue collar, secessionist and openly racist lumpen proletariat, hate Obama for his color as well as his liberal programs.

They do not blame the corporate thievery and the policies of the last eight years for the recession and America's debt. They do not challenge the military budget or the imprisonment of people in places like Guantanamo. Rather, the tea parties are supported by corporate and Republican interests; many are fundamentalist Christians who carry their crusader shields against abortion, Darwin, gays, lesbians, and immigrants; they advocate carrying guns; they oppose government programs such as health care as socialist or communist; and they ardently support laws like one just passed in Arizona that permits -- indeed, requires -- police to stop and demand citizenship papers of anyone who they deem suspicious. They don't seem to realize or care that this is incipient fascism

I'm reminded of those World War II melodramas in which the man from the Gestapo demands of our hero: "Your papers, please." As Pogo warned many years ago, those who cry fascist these days have met the enemy, and he is them.

Saul Friedman also writes for www.timegoesby.net