Week Three: Lessons from Lessing

For months, part two of Doris Lessing’s autobiography has been gathering dust beside my bed. It covers the years between 1949 and 1962. I picked it up on a whim from Book City some time last year and enjoyed the first half, but teaching and research overshadowed Lessing, so I abandoned her, like so many other half-read best intentions, with a dog-eared book-mark and empty promises. Right now is a busy time for my family, when my wife sells her art at One of a Kind, her biggest show of the year, and I help in any way I can. So I found myself on Friday, in line and listless on a steel bench at five in the morning, in a cavernous exhibition hall, waiting to secure a good spot for next year. I had with me a coffee and my copy of Lessing.

On election night, Yeats haunted me to a fitful sleep. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The poem was The Second Coming and the line that kept turning in my mind, and did so again as I sat bleary-eyed on that uncomfortable bench, was simple and terrifying. “The centre cannot hold.” What does it mean—this weird post-factual world, in which journalists routinely parrot hateful lies instead of evidenced-based reporting? I was physically agitated, deeply disturbed by the footage of anti-Semites and racists giving the Nazi salute to Trump. I felt like the fourth estate was already dead in America when I read that CNN had covered this vile story by running a segment with the chryon: “Alt right questions if Jews are people.”

CNN is Big Brother in America. I challenge anyone in any airport, bar or waiting room anywhere, not to be assailed by it. And today this is the message it broadcasts: If Jews are people.

Without truth, there is no sanity, no structure. Reality becomes make-believe. We devolve into violence. “The centre cannot hold.”

I picked up Lessing as a distraction from my fears about Trump. Instead, she legitimized them. Here are a few of her most cogent observations:

On watching South Pacific, aghast at the horrors of the war in the Pacific reduced to mere backdrop against an insipid American love story: “No one else in the audience seemed to mind. It was one of the times when you realise that there has been, without you even knowing it, a change of moral values, and you have been left behind, stranded on some rather ridiculous outpost.” P. 273

On her displeasure with a journalist when he published a book titled The Fifties in the sixties, without bothering to interview her or others in the book: “I was shocked, not realising —well, none of us did—that this indifference to fact was shortly to become general in reporting.” P. 275

On World War One leading to fascism: “The slaughter in the trenches destroyed something vital in Europe—respect for government. And from that stemmed communism, fascism, national socialism, and later terrorism, anarchy, and that attitude of mind which is now prevalent everywhere, the deadly ‘Well, what can you expect?’ Nihilism, cynicism, disbelief—for one’s own side—and meanwhile, all idealism, love, hope, dreams for a good world, put elsewhere, into Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and later, those other criminals, Mao, Pol Pot…there seems no end to them.” P. 263

On visiting a friend in prison who was incarcerated for six months for being gay: “The first time was frightening, not because of the prison being so grim and nasty, for I had expected that, but because John seemed to have turned into his own opposite, repeating that he deserved to be punished, the police were quite right, because he had done wrong…I was thinking how fragile we all are, poised so lightly on beliefs, on principles—on what we think we are…No wonder people make false confessions…I had not seen this before, and I did not understand it, and I was afraid, seeing what a frail skin civilisation paints over our pretences.”  P. 240

Writing years later, Lessing recalled Stalin’s atrocities as they were uncovered, when she, as a communist, had to face them. This is the undercurrent that seeps up through the pages—what most troubles her—the unspoken guilt that she could have unknowingly supported such a monstrous regime.

In week three since the election, Trump lied about winning the popular vote. After declaring he would not try to jail Clinton after all, perhaps he will now change his mind again.

Lessing was an outlier. She was fearless. A communist and free love advocate, she abandoned her first two children in order to do what she had to do—write. Ever prickly, when she heard she had won the Nobel in Literature, she said “Oh Christ.” Then, after paying the cabbie, she turned back to the journalists in front of her home and said, “Right. Well, I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind.”

If she was writing today, I wonder what Trump would make of such a nasty woman?

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© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.

Week Two

As Trump names more and more overtly racist, misogynist and anti-LGBT old, white men to key positions in his administration, and gets pissy in a weekend morning twitter sulk over actors asserting their right to free speech, I thought now would be a good time to review what, exactly, is meant by the word fascism. Scholars have argued about it for decades. A few years ago, I wrote a paper about it. I never imagined then that I would soon live in a time when I had to worry about applying the word, in all seriousness, to the United States. Here’s the essay:

Fear beats at the heart of fascism

“Fascist!” It was the ultimate conversation-stopper during my undergraduate years in the late 1980s. (That, or “misogynist!” depending on the circles you travelled.) As an insult, it was flung at anyone with perceived right-wing leanings. Even Brian Mulroney was equated to Hitler. Today, publicly declared Nazi analogies are all too commonplace, from Glenn Beck comparing the National Endowment for the Arts to Goebbels in 2009, to Rush Limbaugh repeatedly comparing Barack Obama to Hitler.[1] In other words, the term fascist has been gutted of all meaning. It isn’t surprising that since the emergence of fascism studies in the 1960s, scholars still haven’t reached consensus on a definition, despite Roger Griffin’s assertion to the contrary. Certain images immediately come to mind when we think of fascism. Perhaps Robert Paxton best envisions our collective perception:

“Everyone is sure they know what fascism is. The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths; colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority; surprise invasions at dawn; and fit soldiers parading through a captured city.[2]

It’s the analysis of what lies behind these strong visual associations that flummoxes scholars. Categorizing fascism has been problematic since it first arose from the nebulous twentieth-century political miasma to take concrete form with Mussolini’s party in 1922. Or was that its first iteration? Some have argued the antecedents to fascism reach as far back as Rousseau. Some say there are only two authentic versions; the Italian and the German. Some argue for tossing 1930s France and Portugal into the European mix. Some say go further—why not include the Khmer Rouge, the Klu Klux Klan? Some have tried to define fascism via the back door; by telling us what it is not. Some insist that after 40 years of serious bickering, we all agree on the basics. Some want still to bicker. Some say fascism is primarily political, some that it’s cultural. Some say that to define fascism at all is an inherently biased process and therefore, counter-productive to scholarship. While broadening the definition of fascism to the point of rendering the term meaningless is clearly anathema to scholarship and common sense, I will argue for looking beyond the traditional Italian/German borders to redraw the totalitarian map.

Stanley Payne makes some headway in establishing what historiographical agreement does exist. He points out that the existence of a fascist ideology has been conceded and that historians now agree that fascist movements are revolutionary in nature.[3] That is where a commonality in definition ends. Since the 1980s, the popularity of a cultural interpretation of fascism, as originally argued by George Mosse, has gained currency, like the theory promulgated by Roger Griffin.[4] An argument for fascism as a cultural rather than an Eatwellian political movement does allow for the broadest definition of the term, and is consequently one that I argue here.

In any political or cultural analysis, the problem of even categorizing fascism within its traditional parameters, as strictly referring to Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, also presents considerable difficulties, as Robert Paxton points out. “How can we lump together Mussolini and Hitler, the one surrounded by Jewish henchmen and a Jewish mistress, the other an obsessed anti-Semite?”[5] Paxton maintains that you can’t, that you must examine fascism as a system and not on a case-by-case basis.[6] “One must understand it in motion, through its cycle of potential (though not inevitable) stages,” he says.[7] Those five stages are specific: the creation of a fascist movement; the development of that movement into a political party; the party’s acquisition of power; the exercising of that power, and, finally, the radicalization or disintegration of the party.[8] For Paxton, the question of whether or not fascism can exist today is a qualified yes, provided those movements achieve party status, gain power, and otherwise fulfill the criteria of his model. This is where Paxton’s analysis becomes too limiting to be useful.

Parsing a definition of fascism doesn’t further the scholarship. Robert Eatwell’s one-definition-fits-all approach, like Paxton’s model, is simply too narrow in scope. Eatwell’s argument for the fascist minimum is centred on one ungainly sentence supported by four meandering codicils. According to Eatwell, fascism is:

“An ideology that strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic–national radical Third Way, though in practice fascism has tended to stress style, especially action and the charismatic leader, more than detailed programme, and to engage in a Manichaean demonization of its enemies.”[9]

The annotations go on to explain what he means by nationalism, holism, radicalism and the Third Way. Eatwell concedes that one definition of fascism can never completely conform to the real world, which ironically, is an excellent argument against his own theory of the fascist minimum.[10]

The most compelling cultural argument for a broadening of the definition of fascism is made by political scientist Michel Dobry. He begins by arguing against the scholarly impulse as evidenced by Paxton and Eatwell to classify and compartmentalize. When analysing fascism, Dobry suggests a four-pronged approach. Think of fascism first in relational terms, and reject what he calls the “fascist successes.” Next, “change the enigma,” or, more simply put, ask a different question. Finally, Dobry urges us to “compare the incomparable.” In other words, he advocates widening the definition to weigh other totalitarian movements against the considerable heft of the more widely accepted and “authentic” Italian and German examples.[11] Dobry rejects many established notions about fascism, including the perception of it as a solely working-class movement. He argues that to study only the authentic “successful” fascist states (Italy and Germany) negates consideration of other totalitarian movements as fascist, such as inter-war France.[12] “Centrality of successful fascisms is thus at the heart of most attempts to define or theorize so called ‘generic fascism,’” he says.[13] Dobry consequently rejects Payne’s arguments in favour of a fascist minimum, and wholeheartedly renounces Paxton’s five-stage formula for establishing fascism, saying it is so limiting that it can’t even account for the original Italian version of fascism.[14]

Ultimately Dobry argues for studying each potential case of fascism contextually, rather than comparatively against Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany:

Comparative studies of fascist phenomena that adopt the classification approach continue to treat fascism as a species apart, endowed with a radically different nature or essence from that of other authoritarian movements and, more specifically, movements of the extreme right. In their efforts to make this claim more plausible, they also tend to attribute to phenomena deemed fascist causes and effects that are supposedly specific to them. None of these claims has any foundation.[15]

This case-by-case basis is not as limiting as Paxton’s systemic definitional approach. By Dobry’s method, for example, the British National Party of the 1980s and 1990s could also be categorized as fascist.

When considering fascism we must also consider the power of fear. This is the point made by Adrian Lyttelton in the concluding chapter of Pinto’s text Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Lyttelton reminds us that WWI played an essential role in the development of Mussolini’s party. “Total mobilization and total war were the antecedents of totalitarianism.”[16] Lyttelton goes on to insist that fear, as well as violence, is at the crux of every fascist movement. “The dialectic of fear–fear suffered and fear inflicted–needs to have a more central place in our vision of fascism,” he says.[17] Lyttelton’s simple yet profound observation provides a perfect endnote to the discussion; that fear beats at the heart fascism.

Endnotes:

[1] There are many online references to American television and radio personalities using Hitler analogies. I chose two from The Independent and Media Matters.org respectively:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/invoke-the-nazis-and-youve-lost-the-argument-8209712.html

http://mediamatters.org/video/2012/08/14/limbaugh-like-hitler-obama-and-democrats-are-mo/189338

[2] Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. (New York: Random House, 2004), 9.

[3] Stanley G. Payne, “Forward,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), viii.

[4] Ibid., viii.

[5] Robert Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Journal of Modern History, March, 1998, 2.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Robert Eatwell, “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: the Centrality of Ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies, October 1996, 313.

[10] Ibid., 315.

[11] Michel Dobry, “Desperately Seeking ‘Generic Fascism’: Some Discordant Thoughts on the Academic Recycling of Indigenous Categories,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 75.

[12] Ibid., 56.

[13] Ibid., 57.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] Ibid., 75.

[16] Adrian Lyttelton, “Concluding Remarks,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 273.

[17] Ibid., 273.

Bibliography:

Adinolfi, Goffredo. “The Institutionalization of Propaganda in the Fascist Era: The Cases of Germany, Portugal and Italy.” European Legacy, 2012: 607-621.

Allardyce, Gilbert. “What Fascism is Not.” American Historical Review, April 1979: 367-388.

Dobry, Michel, “Desperately Seeking ‘Generic Fascism’: Some Discordant Thoughts on the Academic Recycling of Indigenous Categories,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Eatwell, Robert. “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: the Centrality of Ideology.” Journal of Political Ideologies, October 1996: 303-319.

 Griffin, Roger. “The Primacy of Culture: the Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2002: 21-43.

Lyttelton, Adrian, “Concluding Remarks,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Mason, Tim. “Whatever Happened to Fascism?” Radical History Review, 1991: 89-98.

Passmore, Kevin, “Theories of Fascism: A Critique from the Perspective of Women’s and Gender History,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Paxton, Robert. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Random House, 2004.

Paxton, Robert. “The Five Stages of Fascism.” Journal of Modern History, March, 1998: 1-23.

Payne, Stanley G, “Forward,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

 Pinto, Antonio Costa, “Introduction: Fascism and the Other ‘-isms’” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Roberts, David et al. “Comments on Roger Griffin, “The Primacy of Culture: the Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2002: 259-274.

 

© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.

Week One

Why now? Why me?

I’m a journalist and a historian. It is from this dual perspective that I write about what it means that Donald Trump is to be the next president of the United States. Historians typically shy away from analysing current events through a historic lens, or vice versa. The argument is sound—that you cannot apply the values and realties of today to a different time, that to do so taints the evidence you are trying to unearth. Historians call this “presentism,” and it is frowned upon. As a journalist, however, I am unashamedly presentist. I think we can view the past with the present without muddying the timeline. I believe that we need to make connections between the past and today in order to bring a depth to our understanding of current world events. I also see the study of history and journalism as twin disciplines, connected by the same core values—pursuing the truth and then telling those stories. And we need to tell them well. I look to the past to try to make sense of the present. I want to bring some historic context to what a Trump presidency means today. That is the challenge of Seeing Double. I also believe that the more witnesses and different perspectives there are to Trump, the better. I just hope I can add something useful to the conversation.

Kate Barker, November 12, 2016

Week One:  Significance of November 9 and treatment of the press:

That we woke up on November 9 to the dystopian reality of a Trump presidency is chillingly ironic. November 9 holds special significance in German history. It was on the ninth of November that Adolph Hitler tested his popular strength in the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.

And later, it was on another November 9 in 1938, when, backed by the power of the racist Nuremberg laws, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, instigated Kristallnacht. Named for the sound of breaking glass, it continued for two nights as Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were ransacked in waves of anti Semitic violence that erupted across Germany, Austria and the just-annexed Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

On the morning of November 9, 2016, I posted my fears to Facebook:

“This feels like the dawn of a brutal new world when I thought we were on the cusp of full equality at last. Instead of a strong, smart, compassionate woman at the helm, America has elected a sociopath. The American response to the worst refugee crisis since World War Two is defined by hatred. The spectacle is eerily and historically familiar—a charismatic celebrity on stage, reducing all complexity and nuance to over-simplified sound bites. Rabid nativism and misogyny dominates intellectualism and basic human decency. The ones to pay will be all of the Others—the scapegoats, the targets of this monstrous dumbing down of all things to one, terrible reality—American democracy now trembles on a knife edge.”

Like many others, I was overwhelmed by the events of the first few days. Nothing has assuaged those initial shell-shocked fears. Trump’s continued disdain towards the press is an alarming indicator that American democracy is in jeopardy.

On Thursday night, Trump tweeted about the many protests taking place across America:

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A few hours later, it had been re-messaged to this:

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This wasn’t even the first indication that Trump’s contempt for the press continues after the election. He also refused to allow a press pool aboard his plane when he went to meet with President Obama, something no other president in the modern era has done. In a 60 Minutes interview on Saturday, he defended his use of Twitter as a weapon against any media that ran “a bad story” about him. And then yesterday, he did just that with twin tweets:

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As usual, Trump is not correct. New York Times subscriptions are not down. According to a report in the Washington Post, print subscriptions are lower in this quarter from last year, but its 116,000 new digital-only subscriptions counter that. Mine is one of the them. Ditto the Post. Right now, I’m a grad student and a sessional instructor at a Canadian university. This means I don’t make much money. If I can do it, so can you. It’s time to support the news organizations that call Trump to account, and stop supporting those that legitimize him. (I don’t buy People Magazine, and won’t start now.)

Curtailing a free press has always been a top priority of any fascist state. Benito Mussolini banned public protests and shut down opposition newspapers in 1924. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was immediately put in charge of all German newspapers in 1933. Under the Reich Press Law that took effect on October 4, 1933, Jewish journalists and editors were all fired. Any stories that appeared in print had to be “racially clean.” Under Francisco Franco’s 36-year reign, the Spanish press was heavily censored.

Assessing the status of a free press in America will be an ongoing focus of this blog.

 

© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.