Some hide themselves, and some are hidden; some are forgotten, and some forget themselves

July’s issue of The American Conservative features a piece by Sydney Schanberg arguing that American prisoners of war were left over in Vietnam after direct US involvement in the war there ended in the early 1970s.  Several other pieces pick up on Schanberg’s claims, drawing various dire conclusions about the nature of the political leadership in the USA.   

In October 2008, The Nation ran an article in which Schanberg made this same case.  I noted that article here, remarking that I had never given that idea much credence, but that I was impressed by what Schanberg wrote.  Amid the pro-Schanberg pieces in this issue of The American Conservative is a short article by Gareth Porter titled “The evidence doesn’t stack up.”  Unlike the readers who wrote The Nation to protest the appearance of Schanberg’s piece there , Porter does not list his credentials as a scholar of the US military involvement in Vietnam.  Also unlike them, he does not declare himself to be displeased that the topic is being discussed.  Most profoundly unlike them, he looks at Schanberg’s evidence and judges it on its merits.  Indeed, the only way in which Porter resembles the outraged letter writers of The Nation is that he finds Schanberg’s case entirely unconvincing.  Porter argues that the document to which Schanberg has attached the greatest weight is almost certainly a forgery, and in any case doesn’t say what Schanberg claims it says.   Porter goes on to find many other faults with Schanberg’s argument. 

Something that is, I think, quite well-founded appears in Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to the discussion:

Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.

The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”

Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.

Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible.

In the same issue, Paul Gottfried finds it odd that many Americans who stand on the political Right are so fond of calling their opponents “fascists” and of claiming that fascism was a left-wing movement.  Gottfried is himself very, very conservative in his politics.  Much as he might like to disassociate himself and his fellow Rightists from the taint of fascism, Gottfried also has a scholarly reputation and a lifetime of intellectual integrity, both of which he would like to preserve.  Gottfried lists a number of facts which, he says, make it impossible for a serious person of any disposition to see fascism as anything other than a phenomenon of the extreme Right, and ridicules those who disregard these facts.    

If the idea of fascism as a leftist movement is so ludicrous, why does it have so much support among American right-wingers?  Gottfried gives four possible reasons.  First, Leftists who keep their cool when they are accused of being Communists or utopians tend to sputter and look silly when they hear themselves being called fascists.  While this might be fun for conmservatives who are frustrated to meet opponents who don’t take their ideas seriously, Gottfried says that “only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about.”    

Second, some American right-wingers in the 1930s “had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left” and so “made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical.”  Thus they came to believe that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Five-Year Plans of Stalin, and the corporatism of Mussolini were three names for the same thing.  Those thinkers started a tradition that is still alive and well in some circles in today’s USA. 

Third, the use of “fascism” as an all-purpose term of abuse represents an appeal to the argumentum ad Hitlerem, in which any resemblance between one’s opponent and Adolf Hitler, no matter how superficial or strained, is treated as if it released one from the obligation to answer that opponent’s claims.  Fourth, by attempting to brand what Gottfried calls “the latter-day Left” as fascist, the latter-day Right can pretend to be more different than it in fact is from its opposition.  

I can think of a fifth possible reason.  American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis became notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of books in which he argued that market-driven capitalism was doomed, and that representative democracy would go down with it.  The economic system of the future, Dennis decided, was one in which capitalists retained nominal ownership and day-to-day control of the means of production, but government coordinated their activities.  The political system that would go along with this corporatist economy might be dressed up to look like a democracy, but would in fact be dominated by an elite that would remain in power regardless of the outcome of any elections that might be held.  To keep the public in support of this system and to keep the money supply from contracting, the elite would likely encourage an attitude of militant nationalism and a warlike foreign policy.  This system Dennis called fascism. 

 Dennis consistently said that when fascism came to America, it would not be called by that name.  Rather, it would be marketed as a new form of democracy, as the very antidote to fascism.  He predicted that he himself would be among the first dissidents prosecuted once the USA had become fascist.  Indeed, in 1944 Dennis was put on trial for sedition.  The prosecution collapsed, and Dennis wrote a book about it

In his 1969 book Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis reviewed the arguments he had made in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He concluded that his predictions had been substantially correct.  Avoiding the word “fascism,” he wrote that our current political and economic system “is one that has no generally accepted name.” 

So, perhaps the reason Left and Right are so eager to fling the word “fascism” at each other is that each is haunted by the fear that it is powerless to keep the country from becoming fascist.  For all that Rightists might long to restore the Old Republic and Leftists might long to create a new system “centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles,” each looks on helplessly as events make a mockery of these ambitions.  Whatever success each side might have in its attempts to promote its vision of freedom, the movement towards fascism goes on relentlessly.

The Nation, 15 February 2010

Ramon Fernandez was a French fascist who actively collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of France.  His son, Dominique Fernandez, has written a biography of his father.  The Nation‘s review describes this biography as the culmination of Dominique Fernandez’ life’s work, his attempt to comprehend what his father did and why he did it.

Anyone who hoped that the election of Barack Obama as US president heralded a return to the rule of law will be dismayed by the news sections of this issue.  An article on “America’s Secret Afghan Prisons” lays out evidence that the Mr O’s administration, so far from ending Bush-Cheney’s policies of torture  and disappearance, has intensified those policies.  That article’s author, Anand Gopal, gave an interview about the story, which you can listen to here

Reports suggesting that three men who allegedly hanged themselves at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006 were in fact murdered move the editors to say that Mr O’s refusal to order investigations into the charges against his predecessor amount, not only to dereliction of his duty as a law-enforcement officer, but to a cover-up of crimes against humanity. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ acknowledgement that the Blackwater Group’s soldiers-for-hire are operating in Pakistan and the Pentagon’s subsequent assertion that the secretary never said the words he was shown on television saying prompts the magazine to quote the Washington adage, “Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”  Any Nation readers unconcerned by Blackwater’s expanding operations might want to look at a web-only piece, “Blackwater’s Youngest Victim.”

The Nation, 4 January 2010

Several reports on the Copenhagen summit on climate change draw Alexander Cockburn out with a column trumpeting his dissent from the view that by dumping such great volumes of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere humans are doing enormous harm to the environment.  Cockburn never convinces me when he mounts this hobby-horse of his, but I must confess to taking pleasure in the self-righteous sputtering that fills the letters to the editor in the subsequent issues.  For every well-reasoned counterargument from someone with a grasp of the science and a solid case to make against Cockburn’s claims, the magazine must receive hundreds of letters from people who are not at all equipped to analyze climate data but who are entirely prepared to denounce a heretic and cast him out.  I’m fairly sure that Cockburn is wrong and his detractors are right about climate.  At the same time, I’m quite certain that he is doing a public service by luring would-be enforcers of orthodoxy into the open.  He’s even doing a favor to them; if the self-appointed Grand Inquisitors have the sense to read their letters and realize that they have made fools of themselves,  they might shed their crusading demeanor and adopt a more wholesome attitude.

On The Nation‘s website, there’s a piece about the president of Italy’s parliament, Gianfranco Fini.  The piece notes the rather amazing fact that this man whose political career began in the neofascist Italian Social Movement has became “the country’s most responsible right-wing politician.”  Several months ago, The Independent praised Fini’s willingness to stand up to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in defense of values like accountable government, a secular state, and openness to immigration, values that liberals and socialists are supposed to care about but that the leaders of Italy’s center-left parties seldom lend their full-throated support.  The Independent called Fini “the best leader the Italian Left never had.”  This really is an extraordinary transformation; as recently as 1994, Fini described Benito Mussolini as “the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.”  How anyone could possibly apply that label to il Duce is beyond me.  Before Mussolini came to power he was in some ways an intriguing figure, I grant you.  He led an highly colorful life, full of adventure and rich in ideas.  As a national leader, however, Mussolini was a disaster by any standard of evaluation.  The evil he did (for example, sending 3,000 Italian Jews to die in Hitler’s camps) infinitely outweighed any good with which he could be credited, yet in the end it was his sheer incompetence that triumphed even over his murderous villainy.  This is a digression, I suppose; Gianfranco Fini seems to be highly competent, and no more likely to commit murder than the average Western European politician. 

Katha Pollitt’s annual list of worthy charities includes, as usual, MADRE, a fund that backs various groups of women in poor countries who have organized themselves to combat their own problems on their own terms.  For example:

In Iraq, it supports Yanar Mohammed’s network of secret shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and honor murder. In Kenya, it works on water purification projects that free women from the task of transporting water over long distances. In Bolivia, it helps indigenous women prepare to run for political office. Right now, 100 percent of your gift goes directly to projects.

Barry Schwabsky’s review of some recent retrospectives on abstract painting includes a snippet that may provoke a response.  After telling us that he experiences art one work at a time and looks with a skeptical eye on all art history that describes movements and schools, Schwabsky says:

Abstraction arguably should have even less to do with movements than any other art: a movement of abstractionists would be a contradiction in terms, like a church of atheists. Abstractionists, like atheists, are united only in what they reject. Abstraction is not a specific way of doing art–on what basis can Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana and Daniel Buren be considered part of a single movement? Rather, it is a considered effort not to do what Western artists have made it their job to do for hundreds of years: namely, to construct credible depictions of people, places and things. What if anything else goes?

Perhaps that’s why, as Bob Nickas points out in his new book Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (Phaidon Press; $75), “so many contemporary artists who paint nonrepresentational pictures reject the notion that their work is in fact abstract.” They realize that the name itself, as handy and unavoidable as it undoubtedly may be, conveys a false sense of unity. Other commonalities, even those that would rightly strike us as quite superficial, can be more important.

Tiger Woods crops up.  Ever since news started hitting the papers of Woods’ very active extramarital sex life, I’ve been thinking of William Blake.  “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,/ in the forests of the night…”  Or is it “Tiger, Tiger, burning sensation/ experienced during urination…”  Anyway, the item here is all about how Tiger Woods has spent his career promoting sleazy schemes by global bad actors such as Chevron and the Philippine government, all the while pretending that he had nothing to do with politics.

A picture of Lawrence Dennis as a boy

Here’s a picture of Lawrence Dennis and his aunt as they were when they toured England in 1910.  In those days he was billed as “the boy evangelist.”  Before long Dennis would be sent from his boyhood home in Atlanta to elite schools in the North, schools where he began passing for white.  After graduating from Harvard, Dennis would serve as a US Army officer in World War I, a diplomatic agent in Central America in the 1920s, and a banker on Wall Street in the days before the Great Crash.  In a series of books published in the 1930s, he would argue that the USA was destined to become a fascist state in which dissent would be greeted with criminal prosecution.  For predicting the end of free speech in America, he would be arrested and tried for sedition in 1944.  I guess that showed him. 

lawrencedennis-as-a-boy1

Wall Street Bungles and Bailouts

Here‘s a succinct account of the current difficulties big US financial firms are facing.  It’s from Nuntii Latini, the Latin-language news service from Finnish radio. 

And here is an argument that the bailout the treasury and Federal Reserve have proposed is, in the literal sense of a much-overused term, fascism.

And as usual, Tom Tomorrow has summed it all up quite well.

Telos, Number 141, Winter 2007

A special issue on “Nature and Terror.”  Tim Luke endeavors to rescue Edward Abbey from his admirers; Dan Edelstein considers the history of the phrase hostis generis humani (“enemy of the human race”,) beginning unfortunately from a misunderstanding of Cicero’s special use of the word hostis; Victoria Fareld, in a piece on “Charles Taylor’s Identity Holism,” argues that neo-Hegelian philosopher Taylor’s attempt to transcend individualism ends in a form of radical individualism.  I have a copy of Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition,” I’ve been meaning to read it for several years, this essay should make me likelier to read it.  In fact, I fear it will have the opposite effect.    Telos‘ current editor, Russell Berman reviews a book which defends, alas, the term “Islamofascism.”  All in all a pretty good issue, even though Berman drags his neoconservatism in at the end.

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