The Evolution of Fascism -- Then and Now


My late brother used to tell the story of asking in Sunday school whether we were descended from apes or Adam and Eve. The teacher (a nun) answered, "well, some people descended from Adam and Eve," and then, as she gestured to the only black kid in the class, "some people descended from apes." (Even at 9, my brother was shocked. So were my parents. No more Sunday school for him.)

I'm almost surprised I haven't heard this theory from creationists trying to fake a respect for science by acknowledging this as a possible explanation for the human fossil record. It would jibe with an ongoing strategy of selectively co-opting elements of the opposition, and in the course of so doing blatantly misappropriating and rewriting history. Glenn Beck tries to claim the mantle of Martin Luther King, as Rand Paul imagines that he would have marched on Selma. Opposite Day has been proclaimed across the land--even seemingly immutable mathematics are not safe, as Senators Kyl and McConnell insist that cutting taxes does not reduce revenue or increase the deficit.

Majority rule is a thing of the past: 41 senators hold the country hostage via a perpetual filibuster. Our mixed-race President is called a racist by the very people who hold posters depicting him as a witch doctor at all-white rallies. There are 5 job-seekers for every job opening, yet their unemployment benefits are somehow the cause of the deficit. BP offers 20 billion for the destruction of the gulf; and Obama is "shaking them down."

Up is down and down is up. On the right, the ability to accurately perceive reality has been compromised. Ideology has become pathology.

It's as if fear--of change, of dark skin, of foreign languages and poor people--has created a virus in the body politic. When an Alabama legislator with a confederate flag on his pick-up truck runs campaign commercials starring Abraham Lincoln, you know the virus rages unchecked.

A completely fictional narrative can take root as a functional reality. By 1939, a huge majority of Germans took as gospel truth a completely imagined Jewish conspiracy to control the world and persecute a totally invented "Aryan race." The mania took root in the last years of the Weimar Republic, nurtured by the upheaval of massive economic dislocation. Exhausted by the First World War, the rest of Europe offered no forceful counter-narrative. Even the moral indignation at German anti-Semitism led to a mere pittance in the number of Jewish emigrants accepted by attendees of the Evian conference of 1938. When talk is cheap, human life can be even cheaper.

The rise of the viral right here has fostered the same kind of fevered imaginings. The demonization of A.C.O.R.N. evokes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Fox's insistence that three--count 'em, three--"New Black Panthers" pose an imminent threat to white babies has the familiar ring of the accusation that Jews thirsted for the blood of Christian infants. Considering lists of the undocumented circulating in Utah cite the due dates of pregnant women, it would seem it's the brown babies who need to be afraid.

As the son of a woman who grew up under the occupation of France, I have always been fascinated by the Second World War. Volumes have been written asking how the German nation could have gone collectively mad--and there isn't an explanation that fully satisfies. All we really need to know is that mass hysteria can make for very nasty history.

I understand that our President prefers consensus to confrontation, but his fear of being cast as the "angry black man" is leaving a vacuum. Keith Olbermann does a mean Edward R. Murrow, but his ratings don't compete with those of Herrs Limbaugh or Beck. Only Obama, with his mastery of oratory and possession of the bully pulpit, can hope to give voice to a forceful narrative of uncompromising truth. He doesn't have to be hostile, just unrelenting.

Someone besides Joe Wilson needs to cry out: "You lie!" The time is now, before it's too little, too late.