Friday, February 11, 2011

Nazi: That Word Does Mean What Sheldon Wolin and Glenn Beck Think it Means

It is so easy when you are angry to make comparisons to things that everyone finds appalling. These days, the angry want to say that the current political and social situation can be compared if not to Nazi Germany, then at least to Weimar Germany. This comparison creeps up if you are an American conservative or an American liberal.

Fortunately, if you’d rather not be living under fascist regime, the comparison does not hold when rigorously analyzed, but the comparison is tempting even for the most sensible and precise among us.

In his most recent book, Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon Wolin asks his readers to watch out for Nazis in Republican clothing. Wolin may be more elegant and more liberal than that other Nazi-finder, Glenn Beck, in his comparisons, but his motives are no less frightened and no less visceral.

This is not to say that these comparisons are unfounded or that the visceral can hold no weight in creating political ideas. However, to create a specter grounded in comparison to past events suggests that a familiar foe is waiting around the corner. I would like to argue that the foe we fear is not at all familiar.

Richard Rorty reminds us that a book like 1984 and the fears it identifies could cease to hold meaning if a new way of describing the horror of the mid 20th century is adopted. But, as Rorty notes, we really haven’t developed better methods. The point being is that the descriptions of a book like 1984 describe a particular type of government and a particular type of fear that is located in a very specific time. The time we are in now is not 1984. In other words, we need new metaphors.

Nazis have stood in for our fears since Indiana Jones first cracked his whip. Uncertain times call for certain villains, but our villains aren't certain at all.

But what is it that makes the hair stand up on the back of our neck? Let’s name our fears (and I choose these based on no political ideology, but just on what I've heard people mention as something that makes them nervous):

  • Facebook, which knows more about you than your own mother
  • Google, which probably knows how you vote
  • Socialized medicine
  • Fox News
  • The lamestream media
  • Terrorists
  • Killer bees
  • Global warming
  • Not eating right
  • Not living your best life ever
  • A flu of some kind
  • Giant corporate mergers

There are so many new things to fear, and many of them have very little to do with fascism. Indeed, many of these fears are not located in one central governmental node of power that we could call Nazism. They are scattered, disparate and not everyone fears the same thing.

I tire of these political theorists and yellow journalists writing about Nazi Germany and the Weimar Republic. Sure, I do not like much of the policy that the Republicans have planned and would happily call them Nazis if I thought it would help, except that it won't do much to actually get at what is pissing me off. I'm not sure what to call the politicians I love to hate (maybe wankers?) but Nazi surely isn't the right word.

Stuff I read while writing this:
Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin
Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty
I also watched a lot of Glenn Beck and read a little Judith Shklar, who I'll talk about later because you can't talk about fear without talking about Shklar.

Something that's not pretentious to clear your palate:

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