Sunday, May 12, 2013

60. Is America Becoming a Fascist State?

          The words fascism and fascist get used very freely, and often irresponsibly; we all do it.  George Orwell once remarked that he had heard them applied to shopkeepers, farmers, fox hunting, bull fighting, Kipling, Gandhi, homosexuality, astrology, women, and dogs.  But on station WBAI they are used very seriously, when any number of voices insist that this country either is already a fascist state or is fast becoming one.  (Veteran viewers of this blog know that WBAI is the station I love to love and hate to hate.  See post #16, July 2012, and #50, March 2013).  Most Americans would probably dismiss these assertions as irresponsible, but the examples cited and the people interviewed are impressive.  So here is my take on the subject, the reaction of someone with no expertise on the topic, just the random reflections of an ordinary -- a very ordinary -- citizen.

          When I hear mention of fascism, these thoughts come to mind:
  1. A charismatic right-wing leader who requires unquestioning obedience from the populace.
  2. Intense nationalism, patriotic fervor, mass rallies.
  3. The state is supreme; the individual is subordinate.
  4. Great emphasis on the police and the military.
  5. Contempt for democracy; suppression of dissent.
  6. Alliance with corporate elites.
  7. Aggressive wars.
          Now let's have a look at these notions, one by one.

1.  For examples of a charismatic right-wing leader, we know where to look.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-1202-504, Berlin, Adolf Hitler und Hermann Göring.jpg
                                                        German Federal Archives
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09844, Mussolini in Mailand.jpg
                                                        German Federal Archives                                                      

But do we have such a leader here?  No, since whatever you think of him, Obama is no Hitler or Mussolini.  He's a gifted speaker, but he doesn't mesmerize the way they did, he doesn't command the blind, feverish loyalty of multitudes.  (Not that charismatic leaders have to be evil.  On the contrary, think of FDR and Teddy Roosevelt; both had their faults, but both accomplished a lot, and neither should be called evil.)

2.  Intense nationalism?  In the past yes.  At the outset of the Civil War, no young man in the North who was not in uniform could hope to impress a young lady.  And my parents have told me how, in Indianapolis during World War I, a young man whom they knew took to the alleys and avoided the streets, because he had not been accepted for military service.  But as I recall, we were less blindly patriotic during World War II, and in the undeclared wars since then -- all of them controversial -- the flame of patriotism has often sputtered and come close to flickering out.  But it is good to remember words of (or attributed to) Sinclair Lewis in the 1930s: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."  But consider this ...

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H12148, Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag.jpg
Nuremberg rally, 1938.
German Federal Archives

No, nothing like it here.  Mass rallies for civil rights, for the environment, for all kinds of good and noble causes, but nothing so organized, so military.

          Note on mass rallies:  Back in the 1930s -- yes, I was alive back then -- I heard an American, probably a journalist and certainly no Nazi, describe one of the Nuremberg rallies.  Inside the great hall all was quiet, but with great anticipation.  Then, in the distance, came a sound of marching feet.  Slowly, as it got nearer and nearer, louder and louder, the anticipation became intense.  Then, suddenly, the doors flew open and in came masses of troops, banners, swastikas, and at the head of it all, Adolf Hitler.  The spectators leaped to their feet and shouted "Heil Hitler!"  And what was the American, a detached outsider, doing?  Like everyone else, he was on his feet shouting, "Heil Hitler!"  

3.  The state is supreme; the individual is subordinate.  Here, the plot thickens.  Yes, we have the Bill of Rights (how many of us really know its content?), which are meant to protect each of us from tyranny, and they are supposed to be absolute, not subject to change, and in this regard, since democracy means putting everything to a vote and letting the majority prevail, they are undemocratic.  But, being stated in general terms, they are subject to interpretation, and thereby hangs a tale.  In fact, lots of tales.

           You think your home is your castle?  Are you aware that, in the recent brouhaha in Watertown, SWAT teams ordered people out of their homes at gunpoint, the residents' hands on their heads, and sent them down the street to be frisked by police?  This was not a case of "hot pursuit," where a fugitive is tracked to a private home, but a suspension of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Mainstream media affirmed that the house-to-house searches were done with the consent of the residents, but this wasn't necessarily the case.  In all but name, Watertown was under martial law.

          Of course these searches didn't last long, and the residents were allowed to return.  Owning your own home is a good part of the American dream, is it not?  And one's ownership is surely secure.  No, it is not.  Something called the power of eminent domain allows the state to seize private property and make public use of it.  Presumably, the owner will receive fair compensation, but the confiscation cannot be refused.  The property seized is usually used for public utilities, highways and railroads, and public parks.  But in 2005 the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469, ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could seize private property and transfer it to a private developer solely for the purpose of increasing municipal revenues.  This was highly controversial, and several states have since ruled to disallow such confiscations under their state constitutions.  Ironically, the redevelopment project proved a failure, and nothing to date has been built on the appropriated land.  But an ominous precedent has been set: private property can be seized, even if no public use of it is anticipated.

File:Tuskegee-syphilis-study doctor-injecting-subject.jpg
A doctor injecting a patient with a placebo
 during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
          Just as ominous is the readiness of government agencies, the military, and the scientific community to use the public as guinea pigs -- not occasionally but repeatedly, as can now be documented and proven.  The Tuskegee syphilis experiment of 1932-72 is perhaps the most notorious case, where the U.S. Public Health Service treated 400 impoverished black men in the South over time, but didn't tell them they had syphilis and didn't treat them for it, even when penicillin became available, since the point of the study was to observe the effects of syphilis on the human body.  By the end of the study 28 had died of syphilis, 100 more were dead of related complications, 40 wives had been infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.  The study was shut down only when it became known to the press in 1972, and the public protested vehemently.

          But there have been many other cases as well.  In 1950 the U.S. Navy used airplanes to simulate a biological warfare attack by spraying a presumably harmless bacteria over San Francisco, causing many citizens to contract pneumonia-like illnesses and one victim to die of it.  In 1956-57 the U.S. Army conducted biological warfare experiments, releasing millions of infected mosquitoes over Savannah, Georgia, and Avon Park, Florida, causing hundreds of residents to contract fevers, respiratory problems, stillbirths, encephalitis, and typhoid; researchers, pretending to be public health workers, photographed the victims and performed medical tests on them.  And so on and so on.

          Of course all that occurred at a far remove from New York City and its vicinity.  But from the 1950s to 1972 mentally handicapped children at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, in research to develop a vaccine, were intentionally infected with viral hepatitis when they were fed an extract made from the feces of patients already infected with the disease.  In 1966 the U.S. Army released a harmless bacillus in the tunnels of the New York City subway system, so as to study the vulnerability of subway passengers to a covert attack with biological agents.  And in 1962 Dr. Chester M. Southam injected 22 elderly patients at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn with live cancer cells, so as to study how healthy human bodies fight the invasion of malignant cells.  When this came to light, the New York State medical licensing board placed Southam on probation for a year; two years later he was elected vice president of the American Cancer Society.

          In none of these experiments had the subjects given their voluntary and informed consent.  The subjects of these and other experiments were poor blacks, mentally disabled children, inmates, military personnel, newborn babies, and the terminally ill -- in other words, the most vulnerable of the population, those least able to withhold consent or register a complaint afterward.  In every instance one is struck by how easily those in authority, whether civilian or military, become desensitized, dehumanized.  We have condemned such human experimentation by our enemies -- the Nazis and the Japanese in particular -- yet we ourselves have repeatedly done the same.  The state -- the military, the public health authorities, the scientific community -- are indeed supreme, and the individual, as exemplified by the victims of these studies, is simply material to be experimented on.  Nascent fascism indeed!  What put a stop to these experiments?  Exposure by the press, provoking a public outcry.  Are more such experiments being carried out on someone now?  Who knows?  But to date, I know of no one being indicted or convicted for participating in such experiments.

           Source note:  You may well ask, what documentation is there for these instances of unethical experimentation on humans?  The answer: plenty!  In the Wikipedia article on the subject there are 168 footnotes citing sources, followed by an extensive bibliography on the subject.  For verification, feel free to check out that article and numerous blogs on the subject.  You'll find out more than you want to know.       

4.  The police and military are emphasized.  The account of the Watertown searches should give one pause for thought.  SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams are teams that use military weapons and specialized tactics in high-risk operations beyond the capacity of the regular police.  They carry submachine guns, assault rifles, riot control agents, stun grenades, and the like, and are used for hostage rescue, riot control, and counterterrorist operations.  Clearly, they represent the growing militarization of the police.

Our friend or enemy?
          Surely they wouldn't be used for anything else, now would they?  Unfortunately, precedent suggests otherwise.  In 1987 some 25 armed FDA agents and U.S. marshals burst through the glass doors of the Life Extension Foundation in Fort Lauderdale with guns drawn.  Employees were lined up against the wall and searched.  Products, files, newsletters, and documents were confiscated, and computers and telephones ripped from the wall.  Furthermore, the FDA filed 56 criminal charges against the Foundation's two top officers -- charges that the accused fought vigorously until, years later, they were dismissed by a federal judge.

          What can explain the FDA's virulent hostility toward the Life Extension Foundation?  Life Extension is a nonprofit organization that publishes information about the healing power of nutritional supplements.  I have seen its magazine; the writers are well credentialed, and the articles well documented.  In addition to advocating a healthy vegan diet and a natural approach to healing that uses supplements and herbs, rather than pharmaceutical drugs, the Foundation has not hesitated to criticize the FDA, which many see as having ties to Big Pharma.  In 2005 the journal Nature reported that 70% of FDA panels writing clinical guidelines on prescription drug usage had at least one member with financial links to drug companies whose products were covered by those guidelines; in one case, every member of a panel recommending use of a drug for HIV patients had received money from the drug's manufacturer.  The FDA has since announced new guidelines prohibiting such abuses, but suspicion remains that the FDA is much too influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.  No wonder the FDA hated Life Extension and didn't hesitate to send armed agents to terrorize its employees and shut it down.  But Life Extension still flourishes today, advocating a healthy diet and selling vitamins and supplements, while asserting that 100,000 Americans die yearly from Big Pharma's fraudulently approved drugs.  Will it be visited someday by a SWAT team?  Will you?  Will I?  Time will tell.

File:SWAT team prepared (4132135578).jpg
                                                            Oregon Department of Transportation

          Personal note:  Mention of Mussolini earlier reminds me of the one and only avowed fascist I ever knew.  This was in the early 1950s, when I was enrolled in a program for foreign students in Lyons, France.  Also enrolled was a short, attractive Italian girl named Ritarella, who when spring came began telling other students, "Oh, les yeux bleus de l'Américain!" (Oh, the blue eyes of the American).  I and my baby blues had been on the scene since the previous October, so why this belated discovery?  It's simple: her Swiss boyfriend had just gone back to Switzerland.  So Ritarella and I kept company for a while, albeit innocently, since she was hard to reject or avoid.  On one occasion we and some other students attended a lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading French leftist intellectual of the time.  When he made a disparaging remark about fascism, Rita said to me in much too loud a voice (in French, our common language), "He shouldn't have said that about fascism.  I'm a fascist!" This was news to me, but I immediately and repeatedly shushed her, given the leftist nature of the gathering.   Later she explained:  "Democracy doesn't work in Italy.  When our politicians get together, all they do is babble and scream at one another.  Mussolini shouldn't have ended the way he did."  I well remembered photos of il Duce and his mistress, shot by partisans and strung up by their ankles.  A disgusting sight, I'll admit, and a sorry end for him, lacking the Wagnerian grandeur -- or at least grandiosity -- of Hitler's suicide in the bunker.  When I mentioned Italy's getting into the war, Rita admitted that that was a mistake, but she held to it that Mussolini deserved credit for governing the ungovernable Italians, an opinion that she would no doubt reaffirm today, given the current political instability in Rome.  A charming fascist, and in no way menacing.  If only they were all like that!

5.  Contempt for democracy; suppression of dissent.  Not openly; we claim to be one of the world's leading and most successful democracies, a showcase for others.  But do the people really rule, and is dissent really tolerated?  The recent defeat in the Senate of a gun-control bill favored by a majority of Americans shows that once again our elected representatives are more in bed with special interest donors than with their constituents.  (A bad image, given recent scandals.  Or maybe a good one.)  This is a familiar story and will persist until there is major campaign finance reform.

         As for the freedom to dissent, yes, we can spout our opinions, but this freedom is not without threats, as seen in the FDA's attempt to eliminate the Life Extension Foundation.  And what about Bradley Manning, the presumed leaker of classified documents, and Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, who made those documents available worldwide?  While both are hailed as heroes abroad, our government is determined to make an example of them.  But isn't Manning entitled to the status of whistleblower, and Assange -- now hunkered down in the Ecuadorean embassy in London -- to that of journalist?  Threats to our right to dissent have to be resisted every year, every month, every day, and this can wear some people out.  In an earlier post I remarked, quoting others, that 5% of the population want power, 5% want justice, and the rest simply want to get on with their lives.  The greatest threat of all to democracy is the citizens' apathy.  As Grandpa Al Lewis (post #19) used to say, we've got to get the asses of the masses in the streets.  It's that blessed 5% concerned with justice who may, in time, make a difference.  Will we listen to them?

Hero or traitor?
in the name of Freedom

File:Sydney Wikileaks 2010-Dec-10.JPG
Demonstration in Australia in support of Julian Assange.

6.  Alliance with corporate elites.  Yes, our government is closely tied to Big Business, as noted in the FDA's hostility to Life Extension already noted.  And then, there's the Washington revolving door, where those regulating an industry leave government service to work for the very industry they used to regulate, and executives of an industry enter government service to regulate that same industry.  But even more egregious is the case of ALEC.  Never heard of it?  It's time you did, though that's the last thing ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has wanted.  Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of legislators, businesses, and foundations that produces model legislation for state legislatures and claims to promote free-market and conservative ideas.  In many instances ALEC has written legislation that legislators then took back to their legislatures and introduced as if it had been written solely by them, without corporate collaboration.  In other words, ALEC lets industry-backed legislation appear to be the grass-roots efforts of the various states.  So if you wonder how legislation so favorable to corporate America, but not to ordinary citizens, gets passed, here's the answer.

          No party goes on forever, though this one lasted for years.  In July 2011 the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine blew the whistle, revealing ALEC's existence and modus operandi (oops! there's my Latin again).  The legislators attending the annual conventions were treated to travel expenses, rooms in swank hotels, pool parties, even strip clubs.  This revelation -- not the strip clubs, but the whole shebang -- provoked an exodus of members scurrying for cover like creepy-crawlies caught in a beam of light.  Among those who have opted out of ALEC: Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, UPS, McDonald's, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Procter & Gamble,, Wal-Mart, Dell Computers, CVS Caremark, Hewlett-Packard, Best Buy, Express Scripts/Medco, GM, Walgreens, GE, Western Union, Sprint Nextel, Wells Fargo, Merck, Bank of America, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others.  Quite a roster of corporate biggies!  Among those still listed as members: AT&T, ExxonMobil, Koch Companies Public Sector (a subsidiary of the arch-conservative Koch brothers of great or ill fame), and Pfizer.  To judge by its website, ALEC itself, with its motto "Limited Government -- Free Markets -- Federalism," still functions and flourishes.

File:Afghanistan War 2001.jpg
In Afghanistan today.

7.  Aggressive Wars.  Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other smaller wars, some of which we are barely aware of.  Here, there's little to debate.  In the federal budget for the fiscal year 2013, some estimate that as much as 47% in fact goes to the military.

          So what do we conclude?  Is this country becoming a fascist state?  If you use the word fascist in its narrow historical sense -- meaning a state like Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy -- then the answer is no.  But are there alarming trends toward a state that acts arbitrarily, subordinates the individual, and ignores the popular will?  With ALEC, the FDA, unethical experiments on humans, Bradley Manning, and SWAT teams in mind, I think you have to say yes.  Will fascism come wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross?  Wrapped in the flag, certainly, though I'm not sure about the cross.  What might prevent it?  Our diversity; our federal system that reserves certain powers to the states; our system of checks and balances; our free press; our very American dislike of discipline.  But all that is not enough.  If citizens remain apathetic, fascism -- our style of it -- will come in the name of national security with the full support of the military-industrial complex and significant elements of the scientific community.  And if we let that happen, God help us!

          Coming next: Jim Fisk, part 1: Prince Erie (our most colorful robber baron and his highjinks).  And in the offing: The Magnificence and Insolence of Trees; Who is a hero? (Bradley Manning?  Ralph Nader?  Obama?  John Brown?); Farewells (kiss-offs, coffins, and other partings); Abnormal and Paranormal Adventures (saving the world and turning clouds green, floating in space, coming back from immensities of light).  And, at intervals, Jim Fisk.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder


  1. Another interesting, insightful piece—thank you. Apropos Mussolini, it is said and apparently confirmed by a witness, that trumpeter Chet Baker, a soft-spoken, gentle man, met Mussolini's son, Aldo, backstage at a festival concert were both were on the bill (Aldo was a jazz pianist).

    "Hey," Chet is quoted as saying, almost in a whisper. "I heard what they did to your dad—what a drag."

  2. I'm sorry I disagree with you. You remind me of those who want to believe fascism remains and looks like only what Hitler created. But that is not true.The word fascism was in the dictionary long before HItler created it.Let me read the definition for you. Fascism- a right wing dictatorship and bellicose nationalism. Bellicose- warlike. Have we not been in an endless war really since Vietnam. Almost. We've had a few years of peace, but it is war after war after war. We have a dictatorship in that although the president is supposed to go to congress for permission for these wars, he continues to find ways to create these wars without permission. We have a president that has allied himself with the banks and corporate amercia that pay little to NO taxes, while the burden of running the society is put on the backs of the poor and middle class. I'm sorry if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and smells like a duck, ITS A DUCK and in this case sorry IT"S FASCISM>

  3. I think our differences are superficial. I don't disagree with any of the points you make. I just define fascism more narrowly than you, thinking above all of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. They would not have tolerated my post or your comment on it; we'd both have ended up in a concentration camp. We aren't there yet, but we'd better watch out: the trends are ominous. I appreciate your response. It's even more fun -- and informative -- when the comments are critical.

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