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Sunday Night Journal — January 29, 2012


Several weeks ago, in a comment on my post about David Bentley Hart's essay on American religion in The New Criterion , Rob G mentioned another TNC piece, this one by William Gairdner, called "Getting Used to the F-Word," saying it was "even better" than Hart's. I had read it when it came out, and not been especially struck by it. But at Rob's recommendation I read it again, and it's been on my mind a good deal since. My opinion of it is mixed, but its main point is one that seems increasingly accurate, and has been supported by certain events of the past week or two.

 The f-word referred to in the title is not the one you think, and the subject is not obscenity and crudeness in entertainment and everyday life. The f-word is fascism, and the subject is the increasingly tight regulation of our lives by the state.

One reason for my lukewarm initial reaction was that use of the term "fascism" has been more or less mindless for a long time, so much so as to often seem a joke in itself. For the most part none but the most inflamed political partisans use it seriously, and when they do they're likely to be scoffed at. (Variants like "Islamofascism" still have a bit of life in them.) As early as 1945 George Orwell had observed that 'almost any English person would accept "bully" as a synonym for "Fascist".' In recent years it has even seemed that the word had become so exhausted that it might fall back into application only in the fairly narrow literal sense, referring to the specific Italian political movement and its close relatives, a development which would have cheered many who like for words to have clear and stable meanings. 

I do think that as a matter of rhetoric Gairdner was unwise to use the word "fascism" for the phenomenon he discusses. Once, perhaps, we generally reacted with alarm to it; now many of us don't take it seriously, and take even less seriously those who bandy it in reference to current political developments. But he might ask "What better word is there?" and it's true that there is not a ready and convenient alternative. "Totalitarianism" comes closest, but it's somewhat clumsy.

Use of the f-word is not the only thing about the essay that I find somewhat unsatisfactory. I don't think all his arguments and examples are persuasive. And there are some key points on which I don't clearly understand him. And yet: I keep coming back to what seems the essential correctness of his essential point. He discusses what he calls "macrofascism," meaning the brutally violent, aggressive, and repressive movements in Germany and Italy that produced World War II and were destroyed by it. He emphasizes not so much their violence per se but the rationale for the violence, which was to bring everything in the life of a nation (and eventually the world) into conformity with a single will and purpose. 

These recent forms of Macro-fascism, whether French, Italian, German, or Russian, have  always been collectivist, secular, and militant, striving through the fearsome top-down powers of the State to draw all things into the ambit of a single pattern of national -- or in the case of Communism, international -- Will, or centralized choosing, a Will always expressed by the subjugation and assimilation by force of things spontaneous, private, and natural, to artificial and unnatural public designs. 

Some will object to the inclusion of Russia and communism in that list, but it's always seemed to me that communism and fascism are far more alike than different, and in the sense that Gairdner is using the term "fascism" it certainly applies (though the inevitable argument about that is, to return to my first objection, one of the problems with the usage.) The European varieties of macro-fascism were throughly discredited and abominated by and after WWII, and there seems little risk of their being revived in anything much like their original form. Communism is no longer much of a political force, though in a vaguer form it has maintained its hold on a great many intellectuals. But the desire for control, to bring everything into order by the power of the state, remains as strong as ever.

In liberal democracies the desire is very self-consciously benevolent, and imposes itself gently, in the gradual construction of a web of laws and regulations which grows ever finer and tighter, but is hardly noticed unless or until one tries to move out of it. Since these are always directed toward making someone better off, not to repression, they don't require violence and aren't resisted very strongly. And even those who are penalized or restricted in the process are generally the beneficiaries of some other manifestation of it, so that they complain only about what specifically burdens them, and are no more interested than anyone else in trying to weaken the web as a whole. This, I think, is what Gairdner calls micro-fascism:

So it seems that in a pragmatic response to the dark failures of the Macro form, a softer Micro-fascism, also rooted in a much earlier intellectual tradition, has emerged slowly in the second half of the twentieth century, and is now in full bloom as our most pervasive and therefore most invisible political religion. It has produced an historically unprecedented type of polity characterized by a radically individualistic and autonomist ethic that nevertheless, and rather ironically seeks to organize itself as a national inventory of common public orthodoxies expressed, not as a collective triumph of the Will over nature, as in the past, but instead as the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature.  

I'm with him up to the second half of the second sentence, beginning with "and rather...". I'm not 100% sure what he means by "a national inventory of common public orthodoxies"; I suppose it refers to various liberal (in the non-classical sense) doctrines concerning sex, race, secularism, and so forth. And I'm not convinced that these doctrines represent primarily "the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature." At least I wouldn't put it that way; his preceding mention of the "radically individualist and autonomist ethic" is clearer and, I think, more significant.

But, as I noted in the beginning, I do think that this urge to bring everything under the control of one central government, for the good of all, is the predominant note of what we call liberalism or progressivism. The benevolent intention is genuine, and that makes it very easy for liberals to believe that opposition to their ideas can only be motivated by anti-benevolence. (I think the left in general is more morally confident than the right; conservatives are easily put on the defensive, liberals less so.)

Well, if most people benefit in some way, and no one is being executed or tortured or sent to a concentration camp, where's the harm?--a shallow question with a deep answer that isn't generally taken seriously by those who ask the question. The resolution of the seeming paradox that Gairdner notes--increasing control at the service of increasing freedom--is in the fact that the presumption of absolute personal autonomy, the rule of the imperial self, prevails only in certain respects, above all in sexual freedom, which seems to be the real religion of a great many influential people. More importantly, it's a religion favored by the state, at least when liberals are in power, and when that religion begins to conflict with others we can see the seriously oppressive potential of the net of laws.

Which brings me to those recent events I mentioned, the main one being the Obama administration's move to require that Catholic institutions provide insurance covering contraception and sterilization to their employees. Among other things, this points up the folly of trying to impose a rigidly uniform and detailed health care system on a very diverse nation. (What, you thought diversity was supposed to be a good thing? Yes, but not the kind that leaves people free to do what progressives do not wish them to do.)

More fundamentally, what we see stirring here is the old enemy of the Church, Caesar, insisting again that he is the real God, the one you really have to obey in the end. You can have your rites and superstitions, he says; you can do what you like in your private worship. But you must acknowledge that Caesar is supreme. In this matter, as in the movement to establish rights for homosexuality at the expense of religious freedom, we're seeing the beginning of a real effort to subjugate the Church. Whether or not one thinks "microfascism" is a good word to describe the machinery in operation here, it's an ominous development, and ought to be recognized for what it is.

As for Obama: I didn't vote for him in 2008 but I respected him. I no longer do. His conciliatory and unifying rhetoric was hot air. Or rather, what he seems to have meant is that conciliation and unity are to be achieved by our doing as he wishes--which does, after all, have more than a hint of fascism about it.


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You know, usually when the SNJ is about something political, I think, "Too bad," or maybe even "Yuck," and I just kind of skim over it. However, I was hoping that you would write something like this, because, unfortunately, I think we have gotten to the point where we just have to.

It's a very rare thing for me to post anything on Facebook that is in the least bit controversial, because I just don't want to start discussions there that I don't want to finish there. This morning, however, I reposted an article on this topic by a priest who is a friend of mine because I think it's something that we have to talk about. I'm not really looking forward to it, though. I'm not sure when I got to be so wimpy. I probably need to take some lessons from Louise.


I'll get back to you in a bit--first I have to recover from the shock of learning that you don't read and ponder every word I write.


Well ok, that didn't take long. :-)

I'm the same way with Fb. I have some liberal "friends" (old acquaintances I haven't seen for years, for the most part) on Fb who air their views often and loudly, sometimes abrasively. Sometimes I think about replying, and then I think, "why bother?" They'll only get more worked up, and it will be both unpleasant and a waste of time. I haven't seen the thing you posted--I'll look for it.

Really, I've gotten that way about almost all political discussion, or "discussion," with people who aren't somewhere in the same general vicinity. It takes a certain amount of common ground even to get started, and then there's the rage factor. But as you say, there comes a point...


The ones I ponder, though, I really ponder.


I will have to go look for it too.

You're excused, then, Janet.

I didn't notice that Maclin said he would go look until Ex Pat said the same. There were a couple of people that I thought would say something negative, but I guess they didn't open it to see what was there.

I wonder if you saw the moon pictures.


No I didn't see the moon photos. I suspect the problem is I have too many 'friends' all posting like crazy, or a few 'friends' who post all the time. So I miss a lot of posts because they are pushed down the page. I don't go out of my way to 'friend' people. But it seems rude most of the time not to confirm those who 'friend' me.

I might drop out when they make timeline compulsory for me. Not because it's compulsory, but because I find it makes the page bouncy (the cursor jumps from spot to spot unpredictably), and generally, it's not my cup of tea. In other words, I fear it is beyond my computer nous.

Oddly enough I keep trying to get out of the habit of posting controversial stuff - that's hard for me. I do wonder "what's the point?"

Just in case that wasn't clear, I do now wonder what's the point of posting controversial material, but I can't seem to help myself. Janet I read that wonderful essay you recommended about the writings of St Theresa benedicta ( Edith stein) and have been contemplating ever since the notion that women are meant to bring healing more than correction to others.

Maybe I should go read it again.


Francesca, I've never seen what you are talking about on the timeline, but just reading about it makes me a bit ill.

Louise, I think I'm not so much talking about correcting people as I'm just saying, that this is where we draw the line--whatever horribleness that might lead to.


I read the piece, and naturally I agree. I didn't see the moon photos, either, btw, although I guess I would have if I'd gone to your page instead of just scrolling the main page.

I haven't even seen this timeline thing. I keep hearing people say it just appeared and they don't like it, but Fb continues to look for me more or less the way it always has, "always" being...two years or so?

I still have that urge to get into controversies periodically on other sites, but it's a lot less strong than it used to be. One reason I don't post here on that stuff as much as impulse might lead me to is that I often think "Ok, I'm going to spend some time on this, but almost certainly someone else has said the same or better on the same topic, so maybe I should spend the time on something else."

And, of course, you should spend the time on something else, not because somebody else can say the other stuff better, but because everybody is saying it, and nobody is saying what you say.

When you get a minute, go to my page and scroll down to the moon pictures. I think you will like them.


Thank you.

I will. Not till tomorrow, though. I need to go to bed so I can be alert for my dentist appointment.

I loved those moon pics, Janet! Very clever.

Louise, I think I'm not so much talking about correcting people as I'm just saying, that this is where we draw the line--whatever horribleness that might lead to.

Oh absolutely. And it does have to be stated sometimes. I was thinking of myself. I mean, if one engages in a lot of controversy, is one in danger of merely trying to bring correction, instead of healing first? Or is it even possible to bring healing without also stating the relevant truth etc? What is the balance? I'm working through questions like this.

Cartload Houselander, Louise

I hate auto corrupt on this kindle! Caryll Houaelander.

"Cartload" is hilarious. I guess there's some way to turn that helpful feature off?

I think when I engage in controversy I'm pretty much always trying to bring correction, preferably via a blow to the head. Which is another reason for me to limit myself.

"Is it even possible to bring healing without also stating the relevant truth?" That's a very good and tough question.

When I get a minute, I'm definitely going to look at the settings and see what I can do. Although, I might miss the joy of battling with it over whether "color" ought to be "Colorado," or "Maclin" should be "Mackinaw." I rather like the latter. ;-)

WRT Louise's question, I don't think there's a pat answer. I think the person you are talking to has to trust you before you can either correct or heal them, so I don't think either can happen with someone you have a confrontational relationship with. Of course, there are situations where it's your job to correct someone--like your job. And writing or speaking to a large group of people is different.


I know the grammar in that was awful, but I don't have the auto-correct on.


That's so true, that the person must trust you before you can correct them.

As for Obama: I didn't vote for him in 2008 but I respected him. I no longer do.

Dude I just learned from our secretary that if this goes ahead, all the employees of this University *lose their health insurance*. I had no idea! Given that the best thing about living here so far is the medical care, I henceforth throw myself behind the election of Mitt Romney!

You are now way more enthusiastic for Mitt, or whoever the Republican nominee is, than I am. I think Obama & Co. may have taken a step too far--even E.J. Dionne (liberal Catholic Obama fan) thinks so.

Of course I'm never *enthusiastic* about any candidate. I'm always a lesser-evil type of guy. So this pricks my conscience a little.

Sorry to be enthusiastic, but I can get into a cheer leader state about not living in the USA without health insurance.

I have no generalized opinion about 'Obamacare'. We have discussed that before, and I said I don't see why you should not have an NHS and you said Americans are too crazy.

Oh, you're welcome to be enthusiastic. Anyway, you're not enthusiastic about Romney, you're enthusiastic about your insurance.

Crazy, and also unethical. I wish I had kept that letter from a Dane that was published some years ago in National Review--he said he was perfectly happy with his NHS but that such a thing would not work in the US. I think the term he used was "undisciplined," but he was probably being polite.

I very seldom read NRO these days, but I just skimmed it and read that Romney has promised to repeal Obamacare.

That is enough for me.

Remember, though, that Romney can't actually do that. He can push for it, but Congress has to do it. So it probably also needs a Republican Senate.

This is hilarious: "A President Romney would be on a very short leash. A President Gingrich would probably chew through his leash in the first ten minutes of his presidency and wander off into trouble."

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