Let’s talk about fascism…Seriously…

December 31, 2016

I know, I know: the word  has become an electrifying political pejorative, stripped of substance, and further, it’s so historically freighted and so overused and misused that the word can seem wildly inappropriate if one hopes to speak plainly. But “fascism” does have a precise meaning beyond the optics of swastikas and jack-booted SS men. Fascism is not consigned to a particular place or a specific moment—Europe in the mid-Twentieth Century, for example; fascism is not necessarily the result of a coup or a military putsch, and in fact the most notorious fascist regime in history came to power through a legal and democratic process. It’s long been said that if fascism ever came to America it would come with a familiar face wrapped in an American flag. YIPES!

So, yes, let’s talk about fascism.

Simply put, fascism is a right-wing form of government that opposes liberal democracy, Marxism, socialism, and anarchism, and attempts to forge national unity under an autocratic leader with a totalitarian program advocating  stability, law and order, and more and more centralized power, claiming all of this is necessary in order to defend the homeland, and to respond effectively to economic instability. Fascist states attempt to mobilize a mass base through deliberately constructed fear and hatred as they prepare for armed conflict and permanent war by appealing to patriotic nationalism and militarizing all aspects of society. Fascists agitate “popular” movements in the streets, apparently spontaneous but in reality well funded and highly organized, based on bigotry, intolerance, and the threat of violence, all of it fueled by the demonization of targeted, distinct racial, religious, or gendered vulnerable populations and the creation of convenient sacrificial scapegoats who are repeatedly  blamed for every social or economic problem people experience. Fascist regimes promote disdain for the arts, for intellectual life, for reason and evidence, as well as deep contempt for the necessary back and forth of serious argument or discussion. And fascist states favor protectionist and interventionist economic policies as they entangle corporations with the state.

That’s fascism.

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Making America Great Again, Step by Alarming Step:

December 31, 2016

Step 41: The US—breaking a shameful historical precedent with a significant (if entirely inadequate given US culpability) half-step— abstained from vetoing a UN Security Council vote condemning the Israeli settlement movement, in effect allowing the rest of the world a voice to state the obvious: Israel is an illegal occupier. The next day Secretary of State John Kerry (too little/too late) noted that Israel’s practice of seizing Palestinian land while denying Palestinian people equal rights cannot continue indefinitely; that occupation and democracy are incompatible; and that criticism of Israel’s racist and murderous policies is not anti-semitism. But Israel has no incentive to comply with Kerry’s moderate talking points—the US had just committed billions more in military aid, and that aid was greeted with unrestrained settlement construction. Donald Trump tweeted, “Stay strong Israel, January 20 is fast approaching.” Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been in full tantrum mode, stomping his feet and issuing threats, replied with a gushing thank you note, and the bromance escalated.

Step 42: When the Obama administration expelled Russian diplomats and imposed sanctions in retaliation for an alleged hacking incident involving the US national elections, Vladimir Putin had an unexpected response, announcing he would not respond in kind, descending to the level of squabbling, but would await a more reasonable Trump administration. Donald Trump tweeted that it was a “great move” by Putin. “I always knew he was smart.”

Step 43:  Donald Trump (with the full support of the incoming Republican leadership) has proposed a giant tax cut with YUGE benefits to the “makers” and the “job creators” (aka the richest Americans) with an average cut of at least $1,100,000 to the richest 0.1%.

Step 44: The Donald J. Trump Foundation announced that it planned to dissolve itself, but the New York attorney general’s office said, in effect, not so fast: “The Trump Foundation is still under investigation…and cannot legally dissolve until that investigation is complete.”

Step 45: Eric Trump, the president-elect’s son, announced that he will have no role in the new administration and will immediately cease his practice of attending high-level business and political meetings—while he would still talk to his father about many matters, they would never discuss or even mention business affairs again, since Eric will be running the Trump businesses with his brother, Donald, Jr. and their dad is the conflicts-of-interest are staggering.

January 20 is close at hand, it’s true. No time like the present to rise up and resist.


Make the next American revolution great again!!

December 30, 2016

In order to combat anguished feelings of powerlessness, overwhelming sadness, or a sense of wretched hopelessness, organize a meeting in your work place, your classroom, your building or residential block. Gather together in the spirit of dialogue, speaking with the hope of being heard, and listening with the possibility of being changed. Serve cookies to your neighbors, students, friends, and fellow workers. Initiate a conversation in which folks name this political moment and talk about what is to be done now. Sanctuary, solidarity, resistance, rising up. History has surprised us before, and history can surprise us again—and, who knows?—perhaps we will be the agents of that surprise! 


It’s my birthday!

December 25, 2016
December 26, 1944.
I’m 72-years-old—just half way to 144.
Here’s an aging paradox: those first 72 years zoomed past in a hurry, but the next 72 (or whatever) rolls along and stretches slowly up ahead. I have things to do.
And this is weird: this is as old as I’ve ever been, and I’ll never be this young again.
Even though I’m old, death doesn’t bewitch or fascinate me. Living relentlessly demands so much energy and attention—it feels way heavier, for a while longer.
For me this is the year of Sanctuary, Organizing, Resisting, and Rising Up!
I’ll be there! Join!

Making America Great Again, Step by Precarious Step

December 24, 2016

Step 36: Donald Trump issued a tweet to the world:  “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability…” and a new and deadly arms race was underway. Call it, “Weaponized Tweeting,” or “Tweeting toward Armageddon!” He followed up in an interview: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Imagine that: outlasting an adversary in a nuclear confrontation. Everyone in the world outside the small Putin clique, or the residents of Trump’s hermetically sealed and self-created parallel universe—call it Trumpsylvania—looked on with alarm and horror as the pea-brained moral midgets compared the size of their equipment with the fate of the earth in the balance. I immediately remembered the “duck and cover” drills every kid practiced in the 1950’s—training in compliance, and lessons on the inevitability of a nuclear holocaust. I also remembered that the US is the only country to unleash nuclear terror on a population, and I vowed once again: Never again!

Step 37: Donald Trump asked the State Department for a detailed list of programs, activities, and jobs that promote gender equality. This follows the request a few days earlier to the Energy Department to offer up a list of the names of people who had worked on climate change issues, or attended climate change meetings or conferences. The pattern is now quite clear—and ominous: a new “Black List” of dissidents is being actively assembled, and crushing dissent is one of the front burner priorities for the Trump mob. 

Step 38: Donald Trump’s New York campaign co-chair and member of the Buffalo school board, Carl Paladino, said that his wish for 2017 was that Michele Obama “return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla,” and that President Obama “catches mad cow disease after having been caught having relations” with a heifer.

Step 39: The leader of the Austrian far-right and anti-immigrant Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, claimed to have met with Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump’s designated national security adviser. The Trump transition team had no comment. The Freedom Party was founded in the 1950’s by former Nazis.

Step 40: After the US abstained on a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, Donald Trump tweeted that, “things will be different after Jan.20th.”

The antidote to political depression is political organizing and social activism. Making the American revolution great again!!


Making America Great Again, Step by Poisonous Step:

December 21, 2016

Step 31: Donald Trump tapped Rick Perry, a leading climate change denier whose moment of fame involved his embarrassed “Oops!” in response to his brain freeze during the 2012 presidential debates when he couldn’t name the Energy Department as one of three agencies he would close as president, to head the (Wait for it…! Wait for it…!) the Energy Department, of course! The three-term governor of Texas, a state on fire, has campaigned repeatedly and noisily against any environmental restrictions that would impact Big Oil or Big Energy. “I’m no scientist,” he concedes as he pockets another payment from the filthy extractors and the profit-hungry polluters. He vehemently opposes regulations that would cut carbon emissions or policies that would constrain expanding oil and gas exploration because these are essential to “economic opportunity” and “energy independence” adding that “CO2 is not a pollutant!” You can imagine the governor looking distantly out the window of his mansion with those vacant steely eyes and observing that the earth is plainly flat as far as he can see, or, as he might put it, “Hey, why am I not upside-down?” Oh, you are governor, you are.

Step 32: Donald Trump nominated Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana to be the Secretary of the Interior. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was dropped at the 11th hour because Zinke, who also favors opening up public lands for private profit, had “incredible chemistry” with the president-elect during their one-on-one at Trump Tower, plus Zinke isn’t encumbered by, you know, “lady parts.”

Step 33: An auction item—a 45-minute private coffee with Ivanka Trump in exchange for a contribution to one of her favorite charities—reached $72,888 before her handlers shut it down after a few of the people bidding for the honor said that they assumed they were buying access to the White House. (Shhhhh! Didn’t they get the memo? The line is “I just wanted really good coffee and a chat with a fun person.” Get it right!)

Step 34: On another fund-raising/drain-the-swamp/pay-to-play note, the Opening Day Foundation (founding board member: Eric Trump!) is holding a gala event in Washington after the Inauguration. The promise of a multi-day hunting trip with Eric and Donald, Jr., or a private meeting with the new president for a $1,000,000 donation was rescinded when questions were raised about the “appearance of impropriety.”

Step 35: Donald Trump selected Rep. Mike Mulvaney of South Carolina, a founder of the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus and a leading member of the “Shutdown Caucus,” so called because of its willingness to force deep spending cuts and to shut down the government if they didn’t get their way, to be his budget director.

More to come!


Hitler, the man (redux)

December 20, 2016

How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?

A host of earlier biographers (most notably Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest and Ian Kershaw) have advanced theories about Hitler’s rise, and the dynamic between the man and his times. Some have focused on the social and political conditions in post-World War I Germany, which Hitler expertly exploited — bitterness over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and a yearning for a return to German greatness; unemployment and economic distress amid the worldwide Depression of the early 1930s; and longstanding ethnic prejudices and fears of “foreignization.”

Other writers — including the dictator’s latest biographer, the historian Volker Ullrich — have focused on Hitler as a politician who rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses. In “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939,” Mr. Ullrich sets out to strip away the mythology that Hitler created around himself in “Mein Kampf,” and he also tries to look at this “mysterious, calamitous figure” not as a monster or madman, but as a human being with “undeniable talents and obviously deep-seated psychological complexes.”

“In a sense,” he says in an introduction, “Hitler will be ‘normalized’ — although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’ If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”

This is the first of two volumes (it ends in 1939 with the dictator’s 50th birthday) and there is little here that is substantially new. However, Mr. Ullrich offers a fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country — and, in Hitler’s case, lead to an unimaginable nightmare for the world.

Mr. Ullrich, like other biographers, provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a “Munich rabble-rouser” — regarded by many as a self-obsessed “clown” with a strangely “scattershot, impulsive style” — into “the lord and master of the German Reich.”

• Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

• Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”

• Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a “mask of moderation” when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

• Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”

• Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.” But Hitler virtually wrote the modern playbook on demagoguery, arguing in “Mein Kampf” that propaganda must appeal to the emotions — not the reasoning powers — of the crowd. Its “purely intellectual level,” Hitler said, “will have to be that of the lowest mental common denominator among the public it is desired to reach.” Because the understanding of the masses “is feeble,” he went on, effective propaganda needed to be boiled down to a few slogans that should be “persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.”

• Hitler’s rise was not inevitable, in Mr. Ullrich’s opinion. There were numerous points at which his ascent might have been derailed, he contends; even as late as January 1933, “it would have been eminently possible to prevent his nomination as Reich chancellor.” He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”

• Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression. Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.” Politicians, for their part, suffered from the delusion that the dominance of traditional conservatives in the cabinet would neutralize the threat of Nazi abuse of power and “fence Hitler in.” “As far as Hitler’s long-term wishes were concerned,” Mr. Ullrich observes, “his conservative coalition partners believed either that he was not serious or that they could exert a moderating influence on him. In any case, they were severely mistaken.”

• Hitler, it became obvious, could not be tamed — he needed only five months to consolidate absolute power after becoming chancellor. “Non-National Socialist German states” were brought into line, Mr. Ullrich writes, “with pressure from the party grass roots combining effectively with pseudo-legal measures ordered by the Reich government.” Many Germans jumped on the Nazi bandwagon not out of political conviction but in hopes of improving their career opportunities, he argues, while fear kept others from speaking out against the persecution of the Jews. The independent press was banned or suppressed and books deemed “un-German” were burned. By March 1933, Hitler had made it clear, Mr. Ullrich says, “that his government was going to do away with all norms of separation of powers and the rule of law.”

• Hitler had a dark, Darwinian view of the world. And he would not only become, in Mr. Ullrich’s words, “a mouthpiece of the cultural pessimism” growing in right-wing circles in the Weimar Republic, but also the avatar of what Thomas Mann identified as a turning away from reason and the fundamental principles of a civil society — namely, “liberty, equality, education, optimism and belief in progress.”

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

Hitler

Ascent 1889-1939

By Volker Ullrich

Translated by Jefferson Chase

Illustrated. 998 pages. Knopf. $40.