In campaign season, inspect those buzzwords closely


Asheville Citizen-Times, September 15, 2006

In a national climate where marketing campaigns have displaced rational political debate, pitched battles are fought over the control of words. Loaded words, properly deployed, short-circuit reasoned analysis by going off at gut level. If designed to titillate, they are Pop Rock candies. Call me “my liege” and I’ll stay at your motel. If designed to decimate, loaded words resemble something closer to hand grenades or cluster bomblets. “Cut and run” just sounds cowardly, end of discussion. “Staying the course” sounds tough, even from the mouths of men who actively avoided fighting in Vietnam.

But ad campaigns get tired, and Republicans are rolling out a new one in time for the mid-terms. Lacking positive accomplishments to brag about for most Americans, the new pitch will attempt to refocus our view of the terrorist threat. Specifically, we’re supposed to re-live the run-up to World War II.

The idea has some potential. “Appeasement” can be the new “cut and run.” We’ve got a threat to Jews and an opposing ideology we can hate on several levels. But the fact that the caliphate and lesser forms of militant Islamic nationalism are mainly a grab bag of ideologies also presents a problem.

If we (the good guys) attack a national regime (the bad guys), we know where to find them. Civilian casualties and destroyed infrastructure are regrettable. But hey, we have no ill-will against the people of X, just their evil government.

Military action against an ideology is messier. It isn’t so easy to localize or selectively kill bad guys. The TV cameras usually can’t differentiate them from innocent civilians either. The bombed out homes, wailing women, and dead children might be anybody, and that makes people queasy. You can counter bad press by trying to control the coverage, but word usually leaks out anyway. You can “kill them all and let God sort them out,” but such overt racism has yet to garner much popular support in the US. Or you can fog the issue.

That’s where Islamofascism comes in. The term has bounced around the political right and talk radio for years. Some wrongly credit Christopher Hitchens for inventing it. (Hitchens wrote of theocratic fascism, but when militant nationalistic theocrats are key to the Republican vote, Islamofascism is clearly to be preferred.)

The technical definition of fascism has long been in debate. Mussolini offered his “Doctrine of Fascism” in the 1932 edition of Enciclopedia Italiana. The Nazi system seemed close enough to qualify for most people’s tastes. The inclusion of Imperial Japan was more of a stretch. Oxford Brookes College professor Roger Griffin offers his definitions of fascism in several papers. Link For the perspective of an Italian who lived through fascism, see Umberto Eco’s essay, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.”

The popular definition of fascism has been far more elastic. George Orwell despaired for the word as early as 1944. He wrote that most Britons identified it with Germany and Italy but diverged so widely otherwise that “fascist” had already been degraded to a swearword synonymous with “bully.” Link

Little has changed. Progressives have accused the Bush administration of fascistic tendencies since the USA PATRIOT Act. More recently, some on the right have agreed. Hitchens and conservative talk radio have long tarred al Qaeda et. al. with the fascist brush. Why are Republican campaign strategists jumping on the bandwagon only now?

It’s possible that too many people are buying the argument that Bush’s consolidation of executive power and militant, if not messianic, nationalism tends toward fascism. This might be a political version of evading a charge by pinning it on someone else.

But the president’s men may have more ominous goals. They’ve packaged Islamofascism in tandem with reference to pre-WWII politics. In the 1930s, fascism was more than ideology. It controlled states. We could carpet bomb Germany, Italy, and occupied countries with little public outcry about civilian consequences. If the PR gurus can get us to link “Islamic” and “fascist,” our aversion to Islam will become a visceral hash of 9/11 and Nazi Germany. What’s more, there ARE Islamic states and countries full of Islamic people. Who cares about the anguished faces and destroyed villages of fascists?

President Bush will assure us that Islam is not inherently fascist, just as he told us Saddam wasn’t involved in 9/11. But these brief bows to reason aren’t calculated to outweigh the association his PR flacks want to forge in our guts. This is why the war over words matters. Inspect any buzzing word before you swallow it.

—Michael Hopping
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