There are several difficulties in using words that trigger strong emotions. The recent story over Gary Lineker’s dispute with the BBC illustrates how powerful such language is. I look at the arguments for using and for avoiding comparisons with historical events and regimes.
I have already noted the specific details in a recent blogpost. Today, I came across a contribution to the wider issues, which I found helpful. It was written by the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco in a profound essay in The New York Review of Books.
Eco, typically refuses refuses patronise his readers, which can make him difficult to follow. In one of his own books he advised readers not to bother unless they were prepared to work hard at it.
In this review, he approaches the notion of Fascism with several references obscure to the reader unversed in the language of sociologists. As well as his focus on fascism he uses the term Ur-fascism.
Ur- Fascism is the original form, and his selection is a semantic subtly allows him a way of acknowledging the original itself have difficulties in its attribution. He raises a similar point in the title and content of his best-known work The Name of the Rose.
‘…There was only one fascism … the fascist game can be played in many forms and the name of the game does not change.’
Eco’s 14 Features of Ur-Fascism
He lists 14 features of Ur-Fascism. These features, he continues, ‘…cannot be organised into a system, many of them contradict each other and also are typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism, but it is enough that one of them is present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.’
These are his 14 features with my abbreviations of his comments on them.
The cult of tradition.
One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditional thinkers.
The rejection of modernism. The enlightenment, the age of reason is seen as the beginning of modern depravity in this sense Ur-fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
The cult of action for actions sake. Action being beautiful in its self must be taken before or without any previous reflection syncing is a form of emasculation.
Disagreement is treason … the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.
Fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus, Ur fascism, is racist by definition.
Appeal to social frustration. One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated, middle-class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups
The obsession with a plot. Thus, at the root of the Ur fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.
The enemy is both strong and weak. By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time, too strong and too weak.
Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life, but rather life is lived for struggle.
Contempt for the weak. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.
Everyone is educated to become a hero. In Ur-Fascism ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.
Machismo and weaponry. Machismo implies both distain for women and intolerance and condemnation of non-standard sexual habits from chastity to homosexuality.
Selective populism. There is in our future, a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the voice of the people. Ur-fascism speaks newspeak. All the Nazi of fascist schoolbooks made use of an improvised vocabulary, and an elementary syntax in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.
Michael Rosen’s support of Gary Lineker’s argument
In the recent spat between gary Lineker and the BBC, Michael Rosen, a national literary icon, took to Twitter using Nazi and pre-Nazi language ideas to support Lineker’s claim directly. The similarities with Eco’s assertions are clear. He draws on relevant laws derived from earlier German cultural ideas, but put into terrifying practice in the Third Reich. His list of five factors are:
Rhetoric around citizenship and its removal (Ausburgerung)
Declaring people illegal before an illegal act (that is guilt through intent)
Shipping ‘unwanted’ people elsewhere (Madagaskarplan)
Weaponising cultural beliefs (culture wars, cultural Marxism and wokeness, Kulturkreig)
Dealing with and dehumanising ‘the other’ (the hereditarily sick, the aliens) as morally decadent, and a burden on the people
The dangers of comparing modern political systems with the German system in the 1930s
The casual use of the Third Reich and Nazism
Some commentators have concluded than any political dispute that ends with a reference
to Hitler’s regime has reached a dead end.
As was typified in the Lineker/BBC example, in everyday discourse, the vocabulary is unhealthily widespread often as use terms are terms of abuse without clarification.
On speaking truth to power
While there are dangers of using the language, there are different dangers of avoiding what has been called speaking truth to power.
An argument, yes maybe the Ur-contention, is a poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. It has been repeated and modified many times. This is the version found in The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
A practical reason for avoiding comparisons with Nazism and Fascism in discussions
There is another reason for choosing such words carefully. Even when carefully chosen, as in the hugely consequential Lineker tweet, they tend to trigger emotions rather than rational discussion, often with confusion of what the terms mean.
George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is in essence a warning about the dangers of ‘doublespeak’. Else where he noted that the term fascism is “a political and economic system” that was inconvenient to define, “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. … almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”
In this context, it is hardly surprising that both sides in the Ukrainian Russian conflict have used the term against the other.
I hope to develop this post with comments from readers.