The F Word


Now that "fascist" is back as everybody's favorite lazy pejorative, Salon's Laura Miller has a review of Robert O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism. A passage on the most popular current piece of gobbledegook, "Islamic Fascism" or "Islamo-Fascism," goes like this:

Paxton also eliminates another contemporary contender for the label, Islamist militancy, condemned as the new totalitarian threat by conservatives and some left-leaning American thinkers such as Paul Berman, who endorsed the current Iraq war as a blow against this new danger. Paxton argues that fascism only arises in states where democracy is failing miserably to solve the nation's woes and the public can be persuaded to give up their liberties to regain a sense of power, momentum and purpose. The Islamists who took over Iran or who keep trying to take over Algeria didn't live in democracies to begin with. The Taliban stepped in where there was essentially no state at all, and militants elsewhere in the Arab world have little real political power.

Perhaps, but if fascism is as culturally opportunistic as Paxton says, it is already adapting itself to new conditions. And in the non-Western world, those conditions could include a religion that is inseparable from the state. If the mullahs of Iran aren't expansionist (prosecuting war is the fascist's favorite way of stoking ecstatic national unity), Osama bin Laden certainly dreams of restoring the Caliphate: Both embrace an idealized pre-modern vision of the nation of Islam that they aim to achieve with the use of the latest technology, in classic fascist style. Maybe fascism will mutate from an ultra-nationalistic rebellion against failed Western liberal democracy into an ultra-pious revolt against failed Arab nationalism. Perhaps then it won't be fascism anymore, but it'll look a whole lot like it.

Or maybe we need to expand our vocabularies a bit. George Orwell, unwitting godfather to the many blowhards who today call Osama bin Laden a fascist, said a long time ago, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Militant Islam is clearly not desirable, but to call a movement that is consciously multi-ethnic, international, borderless and anti-nationalistic "fascism" demostrates only that a) you don't know what fascism is, or b) you do know but you're trying to demagogue an issue that hardly needs any more emotional inflation. Better just to adopt George W. Bush's "evildoers" than to wander back through the bogs of yore in search of a term that at best doesn't fit and at worst adds more fog to the atmosphere.