Bob Schwartz

Category: Society

Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

Celebrated Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016)  published an article in 1995 entitled Ur-Fascism .

Eco grew up during the time of Mussolini. In the article, he jumps from memories of that experience to describe some varieties of fascism and other types of totalitarianism. Not all are well-defined fascism, he says, but he does identify the core characteristics of what he calls Ur-Fascism.

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco goes on to list 14 features of Ur-Fascism. This is the excerpted list; please read the article for an expanded explanation. And as you read it, please consider which of those features you might be seeing now.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition….As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism….In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies….Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter….Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco closes with this:

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

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Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.
—Edith Wharton

I am tempted to include the entire Preface to Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly in this post. Instead, I include excerpts and then encourage you to buy the ebook for just $2.99. As with all lucid insights into the current situation, it will not make you happier, but it will provide enlightening perspective.

The book is a collection of Latham’s essays, “essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air.”


Preface

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.
—Edith Wharton

It’s been six months since Donald Trump moved into the White House with his Twitter account, but I’m still talking to people unable or unwilling to believe he is president of the United States. Eager to bring late-breaking reports of Trump’s uncivil and unconstitutional behavior, they come bearing gifts of high-minded outrage and condescending mockery soon followed by variations on the question, How can such things be?

The short answer is Edith Wharton’s. A longer answer is the one spread across the pages of this book, essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air. Over the course of the twenty-five years from point A to point B, a weakened but still operational democracy gives way to a stupefied and dysfunctional plutocracy.

To regard Trump as an amazement beyond belief is to give him credit where none is due. He is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. Product and mirror of an age distinguished by its extravagant displays of vanity and greed, Trump’s positioning of government as trivial pursuit is the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century….

The camera doesn’t do democracy. Democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens and therefore worth the knowing what they say and do. The work is difficult and slow; too many words with too little action doesn’t move the merchandise. The cameras on the road with the biggest name on earth weren’t covering a play of ideas; they were attracted to the splendor and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of overripe celebrity.

Because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it makes no meaningful distinction between a bubble bath in Las Vegas staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath in Palmyra staffed by headless corpses. The return on both investments is the bankable flow of wish and dream drawn from the bottomless wells of human ignorance and fear, from the always rushing river of mankind’s limitless desire. It didn’t matter what Trump said or didn’t say, whether he was cute and pink or headless.

Trump pitched his campaign on the storyline the movie-going American electorate loves beyond all others—the one about the knight errant up against the system and the odds, the lonesome-pine hero in the trail-weary saddle riding into town to gun down the degenerate sheriff and rescue the God-fearing settlers, to set the crooked straight, restore civic virtue, distribute a fair share of the loot to the schoolteacher, the shepherd, and the store-keep.

It didn’t matter that Trump was a prosperous fool. He sold newspapers, boosted television ratings. He was maybe short on sense and sensibility, but he was long on market share. The infotainment media in all of its factions and instrumentations (CNN and the New York Times as well as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads) recognized Trump as a preposterous clown and transparent fraud but nevertheless framed him in the gilt-edged cliché of the underdog outlaw—up there in lights with robber barons Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, gunslingers Eastwood and Stallone, Mafia dons Corleone and Soprano. The unifying and all-purpose product placement won the election for Trump, rewarded the media with a Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Already in the first months of the primary season the numbers moving up in the opinion poll leaderboards encouraged Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, to assure the network’s bankers at JPMorgan Chase that “Trump’s candidacy may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”…

In office as president of the United States, Trump presents himself as signature endorsement of concentrated wealth, a camera-ready product placement promoting money as the hero with a thousand faces, all of them the face of Trump. Trump at the top of every hour on the networks and cable channels, on page one in every morning’s newspaper. Trump overruling the rule of law, under investigation for obstructing justice, withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, firing FBI director James Comey, ordering fifty-seven cruise missiles into Syria, dropping the Mother Of All Bombs on Afghanistan, signing executive orders lifting regulation of the oil, gas, coal, and banking industries. Trump embodying the Time magazine sales promotion of America, dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome, reshaping norms and creating new realities, saying and doing whatever it takes to discredit government by the people, of the people, and for the people—to nullify it in theory and dispose of it in practice.

The self-glorifying opposition to Trump is as foolish as the man itself. The “Resistance” composed of outraged sensibilities unable or unwilling to believe that Trump is president of the United States—Hillary Clinton voters, Democratic Party nomenclatura and crowd-sourced Pussy Hats, NeverTrump reactionaries, Bernie or Bust revolutionaries, sit-down protesters and stand-up comics—devotes its efforts to the project of Trump’s impeachment. Impeachment will be sought on whatever grounds (yet to be discovered or manufactured) can be cultivated to yield political scandal and tabloid entertainment.

Meanwhile in the White House gilded cage the unscripted and overweight canary sings his ferocious songs of sixpence, and on all sides of every story the voices of objection and dissent rise to near hysteria. Trump accuses former President Barack Obama of tapping his telephones, denounces the news media as “the enemy of the people”; the news media liken Trump to the Devil, accuse him of treason, hear in his frivolous noise the sound of Nazi boots marching into Poland.

The consequence is the destruction of a credible political discourse without which democracy cannot exist. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, made the point in his 1838 political essay, The American Democrat. The vitality of America’s democracy, said Cooper, is the capacity of its citizens to tell the truth, speak and think without cant….

Age of Folly fills in at least some of the backstory behind President Donald Trump’s appearance as Time magazine’s 2016 “Man of the Year.” The essays in Part I proceed in the order of their composition as monthly columns in Harper’s Magazine; the essays in Part II, all but one written to introduce issues of Lapham’s Quarterly, construe history as means rather than end, a hedge against the despairing of the present and a weapon to defend the hope of the future against the inertia of the past. History doesn’t save the day or provide a PowerPoint presentation of a new and better world. It is the fund of energy and mind that makes possible the revolt against what G. K. Chesterton once called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who only happen to be walking about.” We have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday.

July 4, 2017

Rosanne Cash: Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.

The wonderful and gifted musician Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, wrote an eloquent and stirring piece in the New York Times, Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.  It is addressed to her fellow country artists. In part:

For the past few decades, the National Rifle Association has increasingly nurtured an alliance with country music artists and their fans. You can see it in “N.R.A. Country,” which promotes the artists who support the philosophical, if not economic, thrall of the N.R.A., with the pernicious tag line “Celebrate the Lifestyle.”

That wholesome public relations veneer masks something deeply sinister and profoundly destructive. There is no other way to say this: The N.R.A. funds domestic terrorism…

A shadow government exists in the world of gun sales, and the people who write gun regulations are the very people who profit from gun sales. The N.R.A. would like to keep it that way.

The stakes are too high to not disavow collusion with the N.R.A. Pull apart the threads of patriotism and lax gun laws that it has so subtly and maliciously intertwined. They are not the same.

I know you’ll be bullied for speaking out. This is how they operate. Not everyone will like you for taking a stand. Let it roll off your back. Some people may burn your records or ask for refunds for tickets to your concerts. Whatever. Find the strength of moral conviction, even if it comes with a price tag, which it will. Don’t let them bully you into silence. That’s where their power lies — in the silence of rational voices and in the apathy of those who can speak truth to power.

In case you don’t visit the NRA Country site, here are the citizens of NRA Country that Rosanne Cash is talking to.

Don’t Play the Madman’s Game (Heart of Darkness)

In the face of current events in America, it is easy to say something heartfelt, progressive, outraged, rational and clever. I am tempted, but decline and leave that to other more articulate voices.

Instead, what I want to say right now is this: don’t play the madman’s game. Social and political situations are real and affect the lives of many, and we want to make things better, for ourselves and others. But loud and powerful lunatics can quickly draw us into their craziness, even as we think we are doing the right thing by criticizing, resisting and opposing. Before you venture into the heart of darkness, try to be sure of your own light.

Note: Some literary and film folks may recognize the reference to “heart of darkness.” It is the title of a Joseph Conrad novella, which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. In unsettled times, in strange lands, charismatic and crazy leaders may emerge, not so much products of the environment as reflections of it, or at least part of it. Read or reread Heart of Darkness, watch or rewatch Apocalypse Now. “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

The Meek and the Mean

And very soon the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.
And the poor shall inherit the earth
and take pleasure from great well-being.
(Psalm 37:11-12, Robert Alter translation)

But until then, the mean and the stupid may still prevail.

“Drunk men screaming Trump’s name try to rip off Muslim student’s hijab as straphangers stand idly by on East Side subway, cops say”

Yasmin Seweid

This is from today’s New York Daily News.

I have mixed feelings about repeating such a negative story. But I am repeating it because Google News shows that at this point it has been covered by only 26 news outlets in America and the world.

Only twenty-six news outlets. Practically any story gets more coverage than that—let alone a story with major social implications, involving the next President of the United States, or at least his name as a rallying cry.

One more thing: Take the hateful actions of these attackers, and imagine their shouting the name of some other President. Imagine these men shouting “You look like a f—ing terrorist! Get the hell out of the country! You don’t belong here!” followed by “George Bush! George Bush!” or “Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan!”

Are we ready for this New World?


STRAPHANGERS STOOD BY AND WATCHED as three drunk white men repeatedly screamed “Donald Trump!” and hurled anti-Islam slurs Thursday at a Muslim Baruch College student before trying to rip her hijab off of her head on an East Side subway, the woman told the Daily News.

Yasmin Seweid said she was stunned by the assault — and the fact that no one in the subway car came to her aid.

“It made me really sad after when I thought about it,” she said. “People were looking at me and looking at what was happening and no one said a thing. They just looked away.”

The terrified 18-year-old recounted her harrowing encounter with the hate-spewing trio.

“I heard them say something very loudly, something about Donald Trump … I also heard them say the word terrorist and I sort of got a little scared,” Seweid told The News.

Seweid had left an event at Baruch and was on her way home on an uptown No. 6 platform at the 23rd St. and Park Ave. stop at about 10 p.m. Thursday when the men started taunting her, she said.

They hollered at the business major as she boarded a train.

They kept screaming Trump’s name at her, and then said, “Oh look, a (expletive) terrorist,” she said.

“Get the hell out of the country!” they yelled during the train ride. “You don’t belong here!”

Seweid, who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Egyptian parents, was shocked.

“I born and raised in this country,” she told The News. “I’m an American, you know?”

When Seweid ignored them, they pulled on her bag to get her attention and the strap broke.

“That’s when I turned around and said ‘can you please leave me alone,’ and they started laughing,” she said.

She walked to the other end of the train, and they followed her and tried to pull off her hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women.

“Take that thing off!” they hollered.

“I put my hand on top of my head to hold it,” Seweid said. “Then I turned around and screamed ‘what the (expletive).’ ”

Seweid got off the train at Grand Central Terminal on E. 42nd St. and reported the terrifying incident to police.

Her father, Sayeed Seweid, 55, of New Hyde Park, L.I., said he was also angry that no one else stepped in to defend his daughter.

“Nobody even offered to help an 18-year-old girl,” he said. “That means something. Her phone was dying. You offer help — it doesn’t matter the race, religion, or the country.”

After filing a police report, shaking and crying, Seweid made her way to Penn Station where she called her father after finding an electrical outlet to charge her phone, her father said. She was not injured.

He came and picked her up and they chatted with police into the early morning hours before driving home.

On Friday, Seweid sat with police officers and tried to help spot the men on surveillance video, her father said. No one has been arrested.

The incident is another in a growing list of bias crimes across the city since Trump’s election. Cops said that from Nov. 8 through Nov. 27, there were 34 reported incidents compared to 13 in the same period in 2015.

“American Muslims, and particularly men and women who wear religious attire, are being increasingly targeted by hate nationwide in the wake of the Nov. 8 election,” said Afaf Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“I was very shaken up … I’m definitely traumatized,” Seweid said. “I’m really scared.”

Of the 34 incidents between Election Day and Nov. 27, 18 have been anti-Semitic in nature, compared to five in the same period last year. Five of the incidents have been anti-gay, and five others, anti-white. Two targeted Muslims and one was anti-black.

More About Jim Wallis: The Truth Will Set You Free

americas-original-sin

Yesterday I posted about Jim Wallis of Sojourners and his post-election essay Time For Healing. And Resistance. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the essay and learn about Jim Wallis and Sojourners.

I just started reading the most recent of his many books about the religious imperative of social justice. The following is from the Introduction to America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.


In the following pages we will take a positive, hopeful, and forward-looking approach. We will talk about what it means to “repent” of our original sin—and repentance means more than just saying you’re sorry. It means turning in a new and better direction, which I believe we can do. We look backward in order to look forward. And this book makes a spiritual statement: our racial diversity and social pluralism are a great strength and a gift for our future, because our primary identity is as the children of God—all of us are created in God’s image. Thinking about ourselves in that deeper way helps us to sort out a lot of things.

So what can the truth do for us?

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you defensive? I think we can do better than that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you dishonest? I don’t think we want to keep doing that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you deceptive? We’ve seen way too much of that from public officials, and many people are now calling for accountability.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you bitter? That just makes us miserable, and miserable to live with.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you angry? Anger can be a positive thing, but only if it is channeled toward constructive change and gives us energy instead of hatred. We can eventually move beyond that too.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. I truly believe that would be the best thing for all of us.

To become more free because of the truth.

To become more honest because of the truth.

To become more responsible because of the truth.

To become better neighbors because of the truth.

To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.

To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.

To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth.

And a big issue for me, as the father of two teenage boys, is how we can all become better parents who are more supportive of other parents because of the truth.

Finally, to become better and freer human beings because of the truth. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel passage.

We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.

This book is about how to find the truth together in these difficult, challenging, and complicated matters of race in America.

We will try to answer the question Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. named in the title of his last book, released just months before we lost him: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? A new generation will answer that question for a new time.

I crossed the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march that helped bring voting rights to all our fellow citizens. It was then I realized that the answers to these questions will be found in crossing another bridge—the bridge to a new America that will soon be a majority of minorities. This book seeks to describe that new bridge and how we and our children can cross it together.

We need to better understand the past so we can cross the bridge to a new, freer American future where our growing diversity is experienced as a great benefit and not as a great threat. I hope you will take this book as an invitation—to explore the truth of America’s racial past, present, and hopeful future so that, yes, together, we might all become more free, our congregations more faithful, and the state of our union “more perfect.”

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union

ILGWU 1

It’s #LaborDay. My Grandpa Harry was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). He made beautiful coats. I still keep one of his union dues cards among my treasures.

All this talk about “Made in America” is incomplete. If we want things made in America, instead of all the other countries most of us buy most of our stuff from, we will pay a price. Unless we are planning to pay American workers the substandard wages of many of our import nations, we have to be willing to pay more for our goods. Are we willing? Are you willing?

Meanwhile, here’s the once famous song of the ILGWU. Maybe it can be famous again.

Look for the Union Label

Look for the union label
when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse.

Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house.

We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the I.L.G. we’re paying our way!

So always look for the union label,
it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.!

And view this ILGWU singing ad from 1978.

Happy Labor Day.

Summit for Change: Streaming Online

The Summit

Summit for Change in Washington, D.C. begins today at 6:00pm and runs through Friday. The event is streaming online. Please watch a little if you can.

The Summit is a gathering of 300 leaders committed to changing the world through faith and justice. This diverse convening creates opportunity for building relationships and cross-sector collaboration. Through meals shared together, inspirational talks, and opportunities for smaller group gatherings, The Summit event provides a space for leaders to connect to their peers and find hope for the future.

The roster of featured participants is mind-blowing and uplifting.

If you’ve maybe felt a little hopeless and frustrated about social progress lately, this could be a dose of something you need. It must be possible. James Baldwin, in his famous essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, quoted a spiritual:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.