Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Der Kulturkampf

To hear the media tell it, this country's Culture War is over sexual morality and gender roles. They’ve placed this supposed conflict in a Judeo-Christian context, which conveniently explains it, ennobles it, and protects its adherents from a certain amount of questioning.

There are other aspects of Der Kulturkampf, though...a lot of which have to do with questioning the truth-values of science and logic. As far as I can tell, the consensus on the Left is that the people who are calling accepted truths of science and logic into question are neo-Medieval theocrats who want to replace rationality with irrational, myth-based thinking.

There may be some truth to this. But I find that the various, seemingly contradictory aims of Bush's inner circle are better explained by fascism than by religion per se.

Professor Roger Griffin makes the essential point that fascism is irrational and mythic by definition. This is in part a function of what he calls "palingenetic ultra-nationalism." Palingenesis is, among other things, a term for rebirth; it's most apposite, here, in its alchemical sense of rebirth from ashes. Fascists propose that the nation must be reborn from the ashes of cultural decadence, a process which they see in resolutely mystical – though not necessarily supernatural - terms. They’re utopians, and they have the utopian’s impatience with whatever "facts" stand in their way. If logic and science impede the fascist's progress towards Destiny, then they must be overthrown.

In that sense, 9/11 itself was a palingenesis: a new America rose from the ashes, and proclaimed that the former things had passed away. Part of that rebirth involved renaming the world and the things in it, purging it of all ambiguities and complexities. The writer Dubravka Ugrešić described how a similar process took place in war-ravaged Croatia:

The business of building begins with naming. This is a house; this is the homeland; this is black; this is white....[I]t appears to be intended to convince oneself and others of the actual existence of the new reality. It is only in firm coordinates, in a clear and named world, that we shall not be lost, not threatened by the chaos of madness, ambiguity, multiple truths.

Among other things, the fascistic urge towards a "clear and named world" involves championing an idealized form of peasant values. Peasants in the fascist imagination are simple, vigorous, anti-intellectual, and driven by instincts that come from their innate sense of "natural law." Peasants don't want democracy, because they have enough humility to know their place and to accept the guidance of their betters. A peasant who aspires to more than this has become corrupt and decadent; to complain about poverty or injustice is tantamount to wanting "to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon," as Dickens put it in Hard Times.

In one sense, then, the business of fascism is to prevent peasants and workers from "ruining" themselves through exposure to dangerous ideas. In contrast to its view of the unspoiled peasant who adheres to natural law, fascism tends to see the "masses" as feminized or childlike, and in desperate need of guidance from a leader who is an incarnation of the "male principle." In this context, I think it's fair to recall Andrew Card's statement that Bush views America as a "10-year-old child" in need of his parental protection.

In his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey notes that one of the most common refrains of pre-WWII intellectuals was that the masses should not be educated, lest knowledge engender dissatisfaction with the unreflecting, purely physical life for which nature intended them. Similarly, as Umberto Eco points out, fascism "depends on the cult of action for action's sake....Thinking is a form of emasculation." Behind all this is a profound insecurity about masculinity itself...a fear that masculinity is in danger of being irrevocably feminized by a sexually inverted enemy.

This fixation on an enemy that is simultaneously contemptible for its emasculate weakness and terrifying for its ability to destroy is typical of fascist thought, which tends to see the enemy in terms of contagion or decay. The enemy labors in secret like termites; its evil spreads like a sickness; it conquers not through its own strength, but by weakening the strong surreptitiously. War with such an enemy will be eternal, and yet always on the verge of victory. Defeat is imminent, and yet impossible. This leads to a form of emotional extremism that’s similar to religious hysteria, except that it tends to be both materialistic and amoral; it’s focused firmly on the here-and-now, and postulates that reality is created not by God, but by the will to power of "great men." Unlike religion, its long-term view may be utterly nihilistic; many fascist thinkers have welcomed the idea of mass extinction as "glorious." Thus, fascism often devolves into a death cult that offers no salvation or resurrection, particularly since the promised rebirth of culture never actually comes.

This is not to say that there can't be a religious component to the fascist's emotional extremism. However, fascism requires this kind of emotional extremism, while religion does not. Fascism is a sort of syncretic emotional vampirism that can subsume a wide variety of free-floating anxieties and hysterias, intensify them, and channel them towards its twin utopian goals of destroying "decadence" and hastening towards an ever-retreating new age. It guides religion towards a crusading messianism, and patriotism towards ultra-nationalism and racism. It channels sexual insecurity into state-sanctioned misogyny and anti-gay bigotry, and economic insecurity into divisive paranoia and resentment. Whatever it can work with, it will appropriate and bend to its own ends. It's highly adaptive and protean in a way that revealed religion tends not to be, probably because fascism is firmly oriented towards getting its reward in this world.

This conception of fascism is helpful, I think, because it unifies and explains disparate phenomena that leftists tend to see as unrelated or contradictory. Irrationality, in this context, is not some sort of inadvertant error or human failing; it's a choice based on a specific set of values, by people who have traditionally seen it as a strength. Messianism; militarism; misogyny; obsession with defining and enforcing "natural" behavior; valuing action over thought, physical fitness over reading, faith over planning, and impulse over reflection; disbelief in culture, science, and history; obsession with masculinity and father-figures; psychosexual paranoia about "effeminacy"; promoting socially exploitative materialism; hating modernity while worshipping technology; condemning decadence while wallowing in wealth; exalting individuality while promoting an unquestioning herd mentality; viewing life as a struggle in which the weak must perish; viewing compassion as weakness and charity as dangerous; praising freedom while limiting it...all of these are typical of fascism, and all of them together comprise the orientation of this administration. Accordingly, I think we need to stop thinking of Der Kulturkampf as nascent theocracy, and start thinking of it as present-day fascism.

Why does it matter? Well, suppose Bush and his cronies aren't theocrats; suppose they just play them on TV. In the current political situation, I think it's more damning to reveal them as false theocrats than as real ones. Their impersonation of people who have strong moral values is obviously beneficial to them, not just in spite of our attacks, but possibly even because of them. The GOP seems absolutely thrilled that there's a debate over the role of religion in government; I haven't noticed them being on the defensive, or stammering out reassurances that they believe in secular governance, or any of that. On the contrary, they seem as happy as pigs in shit, as the saying is.

My view is simple: any time the Republicans offer people a choice, it's a false choice. Thus, we can invade Iraq or do nothing; we can privatize social security, or lose it; we can support the Patriot Act, or prostrate ourselves at Osama's feet. All of these false dichotomies benefit BushCo, and I think the current false religious dichotomies are no different. Bush will use the fundies, certainly, and his brand of fascism will dovetail nicely with their misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and sense of mission. But ultimately, the fundies are mere tools to be picked up and thrown down at will.


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog you have- interesting analysis. Beyond praise, I do have one more comment.

The idea that "ultimately, the fundies are mere tools to be picked up and thrown down at will," struck a bit of a chord with me. I've often wondered if it might not be the other way around? The business elite in Germany "humored" Hitler, compromised and gave him power in return for allegiance. That is, gave him some political control because of his ability to quell/appeal/incite the masses and because they thought that in the end, they would control Hitler, that they were and would always remain the true masters, the true arbiters of power. Yet, things did not turn out that way. This is not to say that, ultimately, Hitler did not align himself with the business elite, for later he did, (or, seeing which way the wind was blowing, was it they who aligned with him?). Rather, it is to point out that he represented a marginal but very vocal, (and violent), group that was cynically viewed, one that was to be used as a means to an end by the powers that be. We know that he usurped their power via demagoguery, by deploying his rabid followers on those who refused to be swayed- the intellectuals, liberals, etc. So, could it be possible that the Republicans- the mostly secular business elite- had similar designs when making pacts with the likes of the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, etc. in order to claim power? Yet, in the end they meet the same fate- their power diminished, taken over by a small group of demogogic leaders with a rabid following. While Germany is not exactly a good model, especially because our circumstances are in many ways radically different, it is useful because we know so much about it. So, I imagine I'm suggesting that, as a rough idea, we replace the German worker's party with the religious right and replace the scapegoated Jews with gays. Perhaps then, it becomes not so much the fact that Reagan, Bush I, and II were/are cynically using religion as a road to power, but perchance that the road has overtaken them. Just a thought.

no imagination

Phila said...

Goddamn Blogger! I responded to you at some length, NI, but Blogger ate it and now I'm busy. I'll try to do a brief recap:

First, thanks for the kind words! Second, you make a very good point, and your scenario is very plausible. I do tend to think that BushCo will continue to hold the whip hand, but that's really just a hunch of mine, based mostly on the idea that a true theocracy is very bad for business. That said, the current "joint venture" between the religious right and secular fascism is dangerous as it is, and there's definitely room for it to get way worse without becoming an actual theocracy.

My suspicion is that if BushCo were to have a serious falling-out with the fundies, what we'd get would be apocalyptic Christian terrorists blowing up government and media sites a la abortion clinics. But again, I'm just guessing. I definitely do worry that the level of irrational anger being cultivated by the Right is going to need some sort of an outlet at some point. My intent, here, was mostly to separate these groups mentally, based on the idea that attacking BushCo for its faux-religiosity is like using water to put out a grease fire. I just think we have to address fundamentalism in one way, and fascism in another.

Thanks again for your does me a lot of good to get comments like yours!

Anonymous said...

You're quite welcome for the praise. I've always enjoyed reading your posts at Eschaton because of their lucidity and logic, and for those reasons, I am glad to see you've opened your own forum.

Now, about the possibilty of having apocalyptic Christian terrorists blowing things up... I feel the same way, for pretty much the same reasons. The level of anger that the Republicans have fostered against the government and the feeling of victimization, if not an outright perception of religious persecution- no matter how false that may be- will lead to violence if their demands are not met. This is something that has been festering for quite some time, an alliance that began in earnest in the 70's, culminating with the election of St. Ronnie, their first true victory. However, Reagan cast their demands aside, focusing his terms in office to mostly meeting the demands of the business sector, which with Republicans, has happened repeatedly because that has pretty much always been their true goal. They were able to excuse Reagan's failings by placing the blame on an "obstructionist" Democratic Congress. When Clinton came to office, and the Republican revolution occurred, they artfully used Clinton as a scapegoat, the prime villian responsible for obstructing their demands. During his term, the level of violence became palpable- the Murrah building, Waco, the rise of militias, the increased violence at abortion clinics, the murder of Dr. Slepian, etc. Now, with a Republican Congress, Senate, and executive, it will be difficult to divert those pent up negative energies away from the party itself. So, if the religious right's demands are not met, I think Bush II will really be the "last straw." However, I think, the power brokers in both the theocratic and fascistic wings of the party, (for they are both equally cynical in their use of religion- nary a true believer there), will once again "throw them a few bones" and once again try mightily to direct the anger of unfullfillment and focus those energies on Democrats, gays, "liberals," intellectuals, RINOs, etc. Whether that strategy will repeatedly work, I cannot predict- for how long will they take the bait and switch?- but nonetheless I fear the results, for there are some enough unhinged to fall for the bait. In the end, I see violence. I feel reasonably sure that the greatest threat is not international terrorism, we've lived with that for ages, but from within. The FBI seems to think so too, a little noticed report after 9/11 stated that domestic terrorism would still be our greatest concern, (and, of course, news of their existence or arrest has been suppressed).

Damn this is getting long- sorry, I swear I'll stop.... There is one more factor, (well many), that I see coming in play, and I think few have addressed it. What is going to happen when the left becomes radicalized? If things keep going as they are, it seems to me inevitable. As I see it, the right will solidify its political hold by both parliamentary and extrajudicial means, (gerrymandering, violations of the constitution, intimidation at the polls, ballot stealing, etc). So, possibly we can take the executive in 08' but the prospects for overtaking Congress are otherwise dim, (gerrymandering the opposition out of existence with the aid of conservative courts- ouch, the courts another serious problem). So, I see the democratic processes by which the left can mount a non-violent comeback as waning, with no outlet other than violence. Face it, regardless of whether they later became compromised or how egalitarian their initial ideology, the left has started more revolutions than the right. Anyway, I hope I am wrong. but I see both sides as becoming radicalized.

Phila said...

Great stuff, NI...thanks! And I agree: the greatest threat comes from homegrown terrorism...or, worse, an alliance of, say, white supremacists with radical Islamists on the basis of their shared hatred of Jews. No one's going to convince me that BushCo has the desire, let alone the ability, to do anything about that.

Also, what makes all of this so hard - and maybe even pointless - to think about is the sheer number of problems we face simultaneously. A sane world would be devoting all its energies to dealing with the looming H5N1'd think that'd offer enough trouble and excitement for anyone! Instead, it sometimes feels like we're playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded machine-gun...

Hmmm...maybe I'll try to find a couple of positive stories to post...I seem to be getting a little dour.

Anonymous said...


I remember when a conservative friend of mine was ranting about the Islamofascists--wasn't I afraid of the Islamofascists, and I told him I was a hell of a lot more frightened of the religious fanatics right here in the good old U S of A than I'd ever be of the some guy in the Middle East pissed off about whatever he's pissed off about that day. Maybe I'm more afraid of our homegrown jihadists because I'm surrounded by 'em here in Texas, home of Koresh and the Noonday WMD stockpilers.

Let's take a little walk down memory lane, here. Koresh had enough guns and ammo to take on a few divisions of Afghan warlords; at the time, I told people that if he had been Muslim and stockpiling that many weapons, there wouldn't have been a standoff or any of that. The feds would have gone in there on day one and not f--cked around. But, oh dear, he's a Christian, we'd better be nice to him. Bull! He was a fricking psychopath, and he didn't have those guns just to protect himself. Idiots like Koresh want to bring on the rapture, in the worst way possible.

As for Noonday, those were real WMD stockpiles, folks, and what did those people get? 10 years in jail? And we INVADED a sovereign nation for MAYBE having some WMDs, when real ones were in the hands of some wackos in our own backyard, ready to use them on innocent Americans (well, innocent to sane people, anyway). What is wrong with this picture?

Sorry, but our own jihadists are nuttier than a Corsicana fruitcake, and a hell of a lot more dangerous than Osama ever planned on being, because they exploit the "Christians are good" prejudice in this country, and, besides, they're not a bunch of swarthy "ragheads." Just a bunch of clean-cut Americans, right? A few people can spot the disconnect from reality in their eyes, but most people won't notice until it is way, way too late. And, even then, they'll be saying to themselves, "But he/she/they seemed like such a nice Christian sort of person..."

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