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Geoffrey Nunberg, "Americans Take to 'Fascist' Like an Ill-Fitting Trench Coat"

"Americans Take to 'Fascist' Like an Ill-Fitting Trench Coat"

Geoffrey Nunberg

Nunberg (nunberg@csli.stanford.edu) is a linguist at Stanford University and the author of The Way We Talk Now. He is also a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." Nunberg wrote this article for Perspective.

When I lived in Rome many years ago, one of the best late-night gelato bars was a place in the upscale Parioli district that was frequented by chic young people from the neighborhood, most of whom were partisans of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. "Passiamo per i fascisti,'' people would say when they came out of a movie -- "Let's stop by the fascists.''That familiar form of reference would be a little odd for Americans -- fascism has never really figured as an indigenous political category, the way it has in Italy and other European nations. Not that we haven't had our own right-wing fringe groups, but we usually call them by other names, like kooks or extremists, and we don't expect to run into them dressed in Armani when we go to the ice-cream parlor.

That point might not be immediately obvious just by looking at newspapers or the Web, particularly now that "fascist'' is back in fashion as a political epithet. It's a word we throw around as easily as "bastard,'' and with as little heed to its literal meaning.

Until the 1960s, the American press always spelled Fascism with a capital F and used the word exclusively to describe the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and the like. It was only the international left that used the word as a vague indictment of capitalism and the right -- already in 1937, George Orwell was complaining that the communists had reduced the word to meaninglessness.

It was that small-f use of "fascist'' that American radicals picked up in the Sixties, at a moment when "polarizations were the common syntax,'' as the sociologist Todd Gitlin has put it. The charge of "fascism'' became a way of distancing yourself from the wan civilities of liberalism -- the word could stand in for all forms of social control.

By then, the word had lost most of its historical specificity. When William F. Buckley brought a defamation suit against the author of a 1969 book for calling him a fascist, the court ruled that the word was too vague to be actionable.

The collapse of the revolutionary movements of the Sixties temporarily bleached "fascist'' of its tone of rage. Over the following decades it was chiefly a jocular term for anyone who was trying to impose rigid patterns of behavior. People talked about fashion fascists and wine fascists, and pinned "fascistic'' on everything from anti-smoking ordinances to those annoying seat belts that lock you in automatically when you close the car door. (I confess to having used the word for my dental hygienist.)

Now, though, "fascist'' has been revived as a political epithet. The anger stirred up by the Iraq war and the administration's domestic anti-terrorism programs has many leftists pulling the word out of the closet, along with tie-dye T-shirts and chants of "hey, hey, ho, ho.'' An AltaVista search turns up more than 7,500 pages where "fascist'' or "ascism'' appears within 10 words of "Ashcroft'' or "Bush.''

Not everything is the same as in the Sixties, it's true. Anti-war demonstrators may call Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft fascists, but you rarely hear them yelling "fascist pigs'' at the police -- a sign of the restraint that both protesters and cops have learned since the bloody confrontations four decades ago.

Not just leftists

What's most striking this time around is that the epithet isn't the exclusive province of the left anymore.

Sometimes the right's charges of fascism are appropriate, as when supporters of the Iraq war use "fascist'' to describe Saddam Hussein's regime. Saddam's Iraq may not have been the kind of corporatist state that Mussolini and Hitler were trying to build, but it had a lot of features of classical fascism: the militaristic nationalism, a secular religion of the state and a government by secret-police terror -- not to mention grandiose public monuments and those silly high-peaked caps like the ones that German and Italian officers wore. (One of the few to object to such comparisons was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who complained to British journalists that Mussolini's regime was far more benign than Saddam's.)

Still, it's striking that few people were calling Saddam a fascist at the time of the gulf war in 1991. In the past year, there have been 102 stories in American newspapers in which someone described Saddam's regime as fascist; over the corresponding period surrounding the 1991 war, there were just 22.

And it's a stretch when supporters of the administration's policies use phrases like "Islamo-fascist'' to describe militant Islamists. The Taliban government may have been a repressive theocracy, but it wasn't particularly reminiscent of Hitler or Mussolini's regimes, which tried to make religion subordinate to the state, rather than the other way round.

It's as if the evils of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden aren't sufficient to the day -- we can't go after anyone now without comparing the campaign to the "good war'' against Hitler and raising the historical memories of appeasement.

In fact, the right has taken to using "fascist'' with a reckless brio that we used to associate with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Rush Limbaugh has described Dick Gephardt's health care program as fascist, and a few months ago the former director of the American Conservative Union called Tim Robbins a fascist for complaining that the right-wing media are stifling dissent.

When Jerry Springer was considering a run for the Senate in Ohio in July, the National Review's Jonah Goldberg compared him to a fascist demagogue. It's part of the same otherworldly rhetoric that led the irrepressible Ann Coulter to liken NBC's morning host Katie Couric to both Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels.

Quaint retro appeal

The right's new enthusiasm for "fascist'' has a lot to do with the fall of communism, which left old epithets like "pinko'' and "communistic'' sounding quaint and retro. (Nowadays, in fact, in some places the word Communism has grown a capital letter, even as "fascism'' was losing its own -- people think of Communism as a closed chapter in world history.)

There was a time when the right would routinely refer to the ACLU as communist sympathizers or a communist front.

That association was implicit when the elder George Bush described Michael Dukakis as "a card-carrying member of the ACLU,'' a phrase that echoed the way Sen. Joseph McCarthy referred to members of the Communist Party.

Nowadays, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly describes the group as a "fascist organization'' that "uses their legal clout to terrorize various school districts and individuals.''

That doesn't make a lot of historical sense. Real fascists didn't try to litigate their way to power -- if they did, they wouldn't have been fascists.

But then few of the Americans who use "fascist'' these days have much interest in dotting their historical i's. Like "Big Brother'' or "Orwellian,'' it's a spandex specter that you can stretch over anything that smacks of excessive control and surveillance, whether it comes from the left, the right or the seat-belt makers.

'It can't happen here'

The loose use of "fascist'' comes particularly easy to Americans. For most of the peoples of Europe, the word still conjures up a shameful period that has to be lived down. But we can toss the "fascist'' label around with easy abandon, secure in the conviction that, really, "it can't happen here'' (the ironic title of Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel about a fascist takeover of the United States.)

Americans may not have a vivid sense of history, but you can count on them to reject anything that you can persuade them to picture in leather boots and a high-peaked cap.