American “town halls”, cries of fascism, and actual 20th century European history

Salon.com link — watch the video toward the bottom

I’ve been following this “town hall” phenomenon in the hot days this summer. What is going on is that the Republicans, whether through organized people in the shadows, or just riling folks up, have created these small bands of protesters who show up at meetings meant to share information between elected U.S. officials and the populace, and they disrupt the meeting.

Senator Arlen Specter (D – Pennsylvania, but used to be R – Pennsylvania) got the treatment particularly hard late last week. As is evidenced by the video clip embedded at the Salon article.

In the beginning, some man is calling Specter a “socialist fascist” or something like that. The middle guy in the clip is a bit more reasonable sounding, with his theory about how elected officials set themselves up nice. (That idea, that politicians set themselves up nice, is actually resonating fairly well in the ongoing Japanese general election campaign this month!)

Toward the end of the clip, they are talking about whether Senator Specter “lost touch” with his constituents. And you hear one lady say, in effect, “yes you have”. And it was because Specter had been a Republican and switched to Democrat. And the explanation of “losing touch” is that the Republicans had voted him in—that is what the lady was obviously getting at.

And it makes you wonder whether that whole shouting match was arranged by local Republicans as a “punishment” for Specter switching sides. Another post!

But what I want to talk about is how the opposition to health care slings around words like “socialist” and particularly “fascist”.

And I want to write about it in very general terms. Which is, not to reference the Holocaust, the estimated six million deaths of Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany and their various clients in 1940’s Europe.

When I went to school in the 1980’s and early ’90’s, the
“politically correct” era, you could easily be accused of anti-Semitism if you varied from the script about this. The script being that the ultimate end of these European fascist, or totalitarian, or throw “socialist” in movements was the elimination of the Jews.

But I think a fair reading of history is that these movements had a certain inhumanity to them by nature of what they were. And many people were badly abused and at the worst, killed, because of these political movements. And, yes, at the forefront of that time are the Jews. But other people of course.

To me, it’s the thing that the whole thing got so out-of-hand. It really is Western civilization’s Ugly Spot. There isn’t any easy explanation for why European history ended up at such a dead end in 1940.

But that is the reality, ne? If you look at the totalitarian movements of the early 20th century, they were the most dehumanizing politics of any thing created by man. The State as mass killing machine.

We of course look at it in hindsight.

But you have to wonder what the people in these places, without the apparent benefit of good foresight, were thinking.

Since I learned about European history, I have always disagreed with the idea that Hitler and his movement had as its ultimate end the elimination of the Jews. BUT, BUT, clearly the Jews were in his target sight, of course.

Again, in the 1980’s, 1990’s academic world, you could get in a lot of trouble for seeing it this way. But I think it makes a lot of sense when you look at history and when you think about the decline or perdition of civilized government.

If the yeller at Specter knew anything about the different kinds of ruling out there, he’d know that the accusations he was leveling at the Senator are right out of the Bizarro World.

And more so, the actions of his fellow band-members were more like what the nutty European fascists and communists were doing in the 1800’s and first half of the 1900’s. What they were doing is the antithesis of what America stands for.

They act like they are the Americans, but in fact they do things that are totally not American. They hide behind American ideals and symbols like “liberty” or “freedom’, but they do it in a way like how Hitler hid behind ideas of the German Volk.

In the early European fascism of the 20th century, the idea was that the State was the ultimate good. Allegedly, this had its origin in the idea of the Roman Empire. And so actually, :”fascism” comes from the Latin “fasces”—a symbol of state power. I believe it is the same symbol that unfortunately was on the U.S. dime up until about 1945. Vines twining a set of sticks.

The idea is that State power is an end unto itself. That the people are subservient to the State. (And the “State”, obviously, are the thugs and money people who are running the thing for their own benefit.)

The clear problem, if you believe in the Constitution or in the ideas of individual worth, is that the individual counts as zero in such a system. Unless they get recognition from the State.

All of the awful fascisms that were around the world in the 1920’s, and 1930’s, and ’40s had particular unique elements. For the Germans, it was this idea of racial purity and perfection. For the Italians, it was an idea of rebuilding the Roman Empire from 2000 years before. For the Japanese, it was an idea that they were the natural rulers and Lords or all of Asia, and had the duty to kick out the “white man” from Far East Asia. (Their “lordship” quickly made them much more unpopular than the white man, by the way.)

So in all cases, the belief that the State—which the fascists DON’T believe has power from the people—-having the final say over anything that the small group of runners decides that should be.

It’s really a scary system.

Where “socialist” is usually thrown in is that the fascists need to buy off enough of the populace (maybe not a majority) to have a following. So in the case of Hitler, sure, he gave a lot of stuff away under the principle of “taking care of our own”.

It’s said during the Weimar Republic, when the economy of Germany was in tatters, the Nazis used to aay, “if you don’t have a shirt, we’ll give you one.” (Obviously, a brown shirt.) They bought the people’s sympathy, maybe, to assent to their running things.

The dirty secret of history is that before the atrocities of Europe, fascism actually had an intellectual following. This was not some political theory that suddenly arose in 1933, or 1922 in Italy. It had roots and a certain pedegree going all the way back to the 1800’s—-just like Communism.

The problem though, to modern ears, is that the arguments that these totalitarians made was for things that none of us would agree to nowadays. And we are shocked that the proposal was even bought in the numbers in was during the last century. Although if people are desperate, then maybe, yes. We are not in their shoes (if they had any).

The worse thing, though, of today, is when the manipulators of modern politics start using the terms for politics of those times to describe what is going on today with normal legislating in a Republic.

What is going on this summer is that there is a proposal in Congress to provide health insurance coverage for people who don’t have it. And one group within Congress feels that the government should set up a plan, similar to Medicare, to cover those who aren’t covered by their employers.

This is quite a far stretch removed from a Fascist idea that the government exists for its own benefit and good.

Am I missing something?

A government program set up by the citizens, via their elected representatives, is a little different than a Hitler or Mussolini taking over.

So when these nuts go running around about “fascist” or ‘socialist”, they are either really stupid about European history. Or they are sore losers. I think it’s more at the latter—they have angry that they lost the 2008 election in favor of a Democrat. And in some cases, because it was a black Democrat.

Losing is tough. Sometimes your Super Bowl team doesn’t win. Sometimes you want X and instead here comes Y. I don’t know what to say.

An overwhelming number of Americans want some sort of health care reform. People are not happy with the situation. And they have not been happy for at least 20 years, and maybe longer.

Our elected government is trying to do something to reform the system. It’s about time! But the people who have an interest in keeping it all the same are wanting to suspend the rules about how things get done!

Our system is simple: the minority has its say, the majority gets its way.

I think it’s highly inappropriate for those clearly in the minority to go about screaming “fascism!” or “socialism!”. They don’t know what they’re talking about! And worse, they seem to be creating the environment where real fascism could take hold.

When the real fascists took hold in Europe in the 1920’s and ’30’s, they did so in an environment where the legitimate governments had been de-legitimized in the eyes of a number of people. Mussolini was the first successful one, but there was also Francisco Franco in Spain. And of course the well known Adolf Hitler.

Hitler, in fact, used the chaos of the Weimar Republic (Germany’s weak constitutional government after World War I) to make the argument that only “strong” fascism could govern the country. His brownshirts did their share to undermine an organized constitutional government. Since there were so many other pressure groups in Weimar Germany, nobody agreeing to basic standards of what constitutional government should be, it was not difficult to undermine the elected officials in Weimar.

When the Depression of the early 1930’s hit Europe, Hitler’s hand was strengthened even more. The actual government could not deliver the basic necessities that people look for help on. (Stable economy, support when things go bad, law and order, etc.) So it became easy for Hitler and his brownshirts to argue that no system other than state fascism could return the benefits that the people of Germany were looking for.

The ultimate horrors of Nazi Germany were still in the future. Many had all been laid out in Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf”, which he wrote in jail after being arrested for trying to overthrow the government in 1923. (So, you see, these guys were around. They just didn’t suddenly pop up in the 1930’s.) The groups at risk just happened to be mentioned prominently as the people who were the trouble for Germany in his asinine book.

The main takeaway from Mein Kampf is that Hitler both strongly disrespected civil government and differing groups of people. If other people “won”, it was seen to him as a loss for him, and he argued, all the other Germans.

Yes, Jews were at the forefront of this argument. But there were many, many other people on the list: the French (victors of World War 1), the Slavs, the British especially through the Anglo-American alliance. Hitler didn’t have nice things to say about the black people either.

What allowed Hitler to flourish was the weak nature of Germany’s Weimar Republic. I think the late Allan Bloom pointed this out in his 1987 “Closing of the American Mind”, referring to the chaos of American campuses in the late 1960’s and throughout the Culture Wars. No Weimar, no Hitler.

Make no mistake: once Hitler achieved power in Europe, if you happened to be in the way, his party apparatus tried to get rid of you. There was no “agree to disagree” or “hold and election or vote to see who should win”. It was “I have the power. I think you should be gone. Poof you are gone”.

This is nothing like the current debate in Congress for whether uninsured Americans should have the option of a Public Plan or insurance through cooperatives sponsored by Big Insurance.

Htiler’s approach to government was much different.

First, he attacked dissenting elements of the Nazi Party itself (Night of the Long Knives). Then he started to remilitarize Germany for an inevitable fight against the World War I enemies.

Then he started classifying “untermenschen” (sub-humans), which was a broad group: Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, certain Christian religious groups (without numbers to fight back maybe), gays–even though a number of Nazis were, mentally ill people, disabled people. He would have added the Catholic Church to the list, but the numbers of people were just too big. But he did go after priests and nuns who objected to Nazi-ism.

After his war machine was built, then Hitler attacked the Poles (October 1, 1939) and took over Poland. Sometime before, he had already annexed Austria and part of the Czech Republic, declaring non Germans there to be terrorists and decreeing that they leave their homes.

Not exactly the same thing as Congressional debate, is it?

Then, after that, Hitler attacked the Low Countries and France. He set out to incorporate part of France and then impoverish the southern part, which was called Vichy France.

Everywhere Hitler and his army went, they sought to round up and exterminate the men, women and children designated as the enemies of his idea of a pure state. In the end, Fascism comes down to a thug deciding who has permission to live and who dies. But the people are not exactly with some advanced stage disease. They are just ordinary people.

Not exactly the same as an insurer deciding who is covered for what treatments. Although government insurers tend to be more compassionate about these extreme situations, the fact is America already has death panels and the private insurers run them!

But it’s quite a stretch to compare a megalomaniac rounding up young Jewish children for death to a democratically-elected Congress setting out to craft some sort of reform of a health care system. I just think it’s really below the belt.

Back to history, though: In the end, the Fascist forces throughout the world (Germany, Italy and Japan) were defeated—from the outside.

It wasn’t that the people in these countries where the fascists took root could overthrow them. And this is critical. When you let a certain non-constitutionality take root, be it the run by a thug, or the run by big powerful corporations who have their hand in government, or by the powerful man behind the screen, it’s like hell trying to get things back to normal.

When the (small – m) mob starts making decisions for everyone, watch out!

What these screamers have right is that Hitler and Stalin were bad news. But because both were revolutionaries. Totalitarian revolutionaries Revolutions kill. Revolutions bring bloodshed. Our own American Revolution seems to be an exception—but ask the Indians (native Americans).

What is scary in America is that the sore loser element of the Republicans seem to be doing more than what should be accepted in their sore loser antics.

First, they challenge the legitimacy of an American elected president who was born on Hawaii (part of America). They put even the seed of thought out there, that Barack Obama doesn’t have a legitimate right to be President. OR they are suggesting that somehow Hawaii isn’t quite American—which if you know history is its own can of worms.

Then, they try to say that having 250 something Congressman and 60 Senators all of one party (the Demcorats) isn’t some kind of mandate to pass laws that the Democratic Party thinks are beneficial. Even though, they just got put in, in a fair election, by large numbers of the voters!

And worse, when those elected Congresspeople do go to do something, the minority (the Republicans who lost big time) start SCREAMING! And big money in the shadows is out there trying to manipulate the situation—-just like big money did in Germany before Hitler came to power thanks to them.

So this is some scary shit.

The lesson of history is that no one saw it coming. You know. No one saw all that ugliness of Europe ahead of time. It came because individual actors made their efforts to destabilize what were arguably legitimate governments.