Last week, a Judge in Louisiana refused a marriage license to a mixed race couple. In the ensuing furore, he was careful to make clear that “I’m not a racist, I just don’t believe in mixing the races”. To which one can really only respond, “But that’s what racism is, Jackass!” What Judge Bardwell was saying was that he wasn’t in the KKK, had never lynched anybody, and didn’t keep slaves. Ergo, he was not a racist.
Similarly, I once heard a co-worker explain that she wasn’t a racist, she just didn’t like black people. It was a matter of taste, that was all, “I don’t like Guinness either” (I swear to God, she actually said that.) When we have reached the stage where people can hold and express such views and yet deny being racist, I think it’s fair to say that there is no such thing as a racist.
Certainly, there are very few who will admit to being one, and ultimately, you can’t prove it one way or another. In any case, we very rarely these days attack people for being bigots. Rather, we attack their words or their actions as bigoted ones. To turn around and say “How dare you call me a bigot?” is to change the subject (see Jan Moir for details of the versatility of this gambit). We can’t know if you are a bigot or not, because we can’t look into your heart and mind and discern the contents thereof. But we can quite easily look at your words and actions and call them what they are. The accused can’t defend what he said, so switches the argument to one about his character. Friends and colleagues are trotted forward as witnesses to his not-a-bigot-ness and before you know it, he is the victim. Often, flushed with this success, he decides he is a hero of Free Speech too, but that is over-reaching. But still, you can’t call a person a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe and expect to be allowed to make your argument, so perhaps we should come up with some new language to emphasise the difference between a person’s non-bigoted essence and their bigoted words and deeds.
While we’re at it, it might be no harm to come up with a new synonym for “fascist”. It is almost proverbial that calling someone a fascist is a sure fire way to lose credibility in an argument. This is a real shame, as fascism is not simply a matter of goose-stepping and genocide, and alas did not come to an end in 1945. As with racism, you’ll find nobody who’s not offended to be called one, but plenty of people who hold what are, literally, fascist opinions. To demonstrate this, I need to say a little bit about the origins of fascism. There was a time when it wasn’t an insult, but a mainstream strand of political opinion. It arose in the midst of a huge economic and financial crisis. Politics were radicalized, as left and right wings became more extreme, with their disagreement sometimes being played out in violence on the street. But for every person who had drifted to one of these two wings, there were more who had no great interest in political ideology and just wanted a government to actually be in charge. We now associate fascism with the right wing, but at the time of its emergence, it was something very new, a Third Way between capitalism and socialism. It was not, like traditional conservatism, exclusively focused on the past, but was a forward-looking, consciously modernist movement. Pragmatism, innovation and industry were valued. The innate power and energy of the People was praised. Fascism didn’t over-think things. Fascism got it done. (the title of Triumph of the Will is perhaps the most succinct summation of the fascist ethos). In place of ideology, the flag was inserted. Neither left nor right, but [insert nationality here] was the basic position. Great emphasis was placed on “The People”, who allegedly had no time for the partisan bickering that made up politics. There was less respect for the will of the people as expressed through elections, when they voted for said partisan bickerers. Leadership was all-important. The question of whether the leader knew what he was doing was not so much unimportant as put to one side in case it led to “disunity”. Unity, banding together for the good of the nation was a key element. Just as the socialists, communists and some liberals banded together for the good of the left into a “Popular Front”, patriots of all stripes banded together into a National Front. Put like that, it sounds almost noble.
Of course there was more to it than that. From the very beginning, a powerful element of aggression towards outsiders was involved. Some have argued that in the case of Nazism, it was only ever about the anti-Semitism, and everything else was only the scaffolding for the holocaust which was the movement’s raison d’etre. Certainly, the hatred was always a driving force. But strip away the more garish elements, the salutes and militarism, and you are left with something which is worryingly attractive to a lot of people.
In the past year (also a time of huge economic and financial crisis) I have heard, on many occasions, the need to abandon ideology in favour of pulling together and wearing the green jersey. It is not entirely clear how this abandonment of difference is to be effected. If we’re all pulling together, who exactly decides what principles we’re pulling together behind? Some arguments don’t allow for compromise. This is not simply agreeing to disagree. If these differences are to be put aside it can only be by one side being forced to capitulate to the other. People don’t like to be accused of advocating the crushing of dissent, but there it is.
I have read in newspapers that our Government, who have a majority and can pass any measure they want, are being hampered by the Opposition in their attempts to Get Things Done. If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, respected commentators have written, the very survival of the state is threatened. People think it’s rude to accuse them of advocating the abolition of parliamentary opposition, but I can’t think of any other way of putting it.
I have read in the same papers that a national government (that government-without-opposition idea again) is favorable to holding a general election, even though any such election would represent an overdue adjustment of the make-up of the Dáil to reflect a change in public opinion. People get narky when you point out that they think the people can’t be trusted to exercise their franchise responsibly, but that’s what they’re saying.
I have heard it suggested that “we” should “get rid” of the politicians, who have failed us, and “put” people who can get things done “in charge”. Michael O’Leary is often mentioned as a candidate. What scares me is not the fact that that if O’Leary was in charge of our hospitals the corpses would be piled up in the corridors. It is the notion, so blithely floated, of installing non-elected leaders. Michael O’Leary is too smart to run for office, and wouldn’t get elected anyway. So “putting” him or anyone else “in charge” would in fact be a coup d’etat. People take offense when you accuse them of advocating coups, but go look the word up in a dictionary, that is what it means.
These startling arguments are trickier to counter than one might think, partly because you are fighting with one arm tied behind your back. You can’t express yourself entirely freely, because it sounds over the top to use the f-word. To call these arguments by their terminologically and historically accurate name is to cross a line that we prefer not to cross. Once you’ve called someone a fascist, there’s really no going back. You sound hysterical, and they are personally offended. It might be a good idea then, to find a way to talk about these ideas that doesn’t involve the f-word. We pretty much define a fascist as a racist, jew-obsessed sadist, and by that definition there are thankfully few fascists around. But it sets the bar awfully high and lets a lot of objectionable stuff off the hook.
Fascism didn’t become popular without having a genuine appeal. It spoke to the baser elements of human nature. Those elements, the impatience with the delays, fudges and compromises that are an inevitable by-product of democracy; the frustration at rules that serve abstract principles rather than immediately practical benefits, the wish that someone would “take on” whatever group of people are the current object of your ire, and “just get the job done”, all are still present in humanity. They didn’t disappear in 1945, and they aren’t limited to any one country. The racism, cruelty and mania are what everyone remembers, but they weren’t what made fascism attractive.