by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2013 – Thomas Adcock
HUDSON, New York
Back in the day, ordinary Americans feared less and questioned more. In that time, an unknown graffitist of Jeffersonian sensibility etched a wise epigram into the chunky wooden leg of a picnic table in People’s Park, the legendary free-speech venue adjacent to the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The year was 1969.
When last I visited Berkeley, in 1997, the epigram was still there. Although faded, the lettering remained clear: “Open your real eyes, and realize the real lies.” Last month, I spotted this very graffito again—carved into a dark shingle of wood tethered over the bar of the Red Dot café here on the east bank of the Hudson River in upstate New York.
Obscure as it is, battered and bruised, the message lives: trust your informed instinct; acknowledge indisputable facts that underlie contentious situations; and—above all—be mindful of how much Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco valued the Big Lie as an essential tool of social control.
In the United States, bowels shrivel at such talk; in the domestic context, we Americans are loath to use the F-word: for fascism, derived from the Latin fasces, meaning a bound bundle of sturdy wooden rods with an emergent axe that symbolizes obedience and unquestioned, magisterial power. Apart from a few of us—dystopian journalists, satirical artists, rag-tag graffitists, and cranks such as myself—Americans refuse to acknowledge that full-blown fascism is as likely here as anywhere else. Let alone how easily fascist impulses infect.
We are quick to forget our own narrow escapes from the ultra-right autocracy. And despite wise counsel from the man who drafted both the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)—most of my countrymen are pleased to ignore nine poison weeds of fascism a-blooming in what we like to call Land of the Free & Home of the Brave:
• Racism, and The Other as scapegoats
• Militarism and police brutality
• Attacks on labor unions
• Religious fundamentalism
• Fear as a driver of national policy
• Emasculation of an indebted middle-class
• Democratic authority eclipsed by organized money
• The Big Lie as political technique
The first eight unlovely sprouts in the fascist garden are painfully obvious, and previously discussed in this corner of CulturMag. Herein, let us examine the ninth, most poisonous weed.
In 1950s America, the Big Lie was McCarthyism, eponymous with the virulently anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). In the ‘60s, it was the need of making war on Vietnam. In the ‘70s, the claim of “I’m no crook!” by the late President Richard Nixon. In the ‘80s, the secret sale of embargoed military armaments to the right-wing theocracy of Iran, in order to finance a corporatist rebellion against the social-democratic government of Nicaragua. In the ‘90s, a lower-case big lie told by President Bill Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman!”
With the election of President George W. Bush in 2000 came a biblical flood of falsehoods—most prominently, the pack of capital-b Big Lies that sent us to war in Iraq.
In 1954, Joe McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues; soon thereafter, he died of acute alcoholism. The Vietnam War of the ‘60s sparked street rebellions unequaled to this day, with the beginning of the end as a mortifying coda of documented government lies published in the New York Times in 1971. Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency in ‘74, in disgrace; several among his inner circle of aides were imprisoned. For their roles in the Iran-Contra scandal of the ‘80s, eleven of President Reagan’s men were convicted of felony crimes. Bill Clinton clung to office despite Congressional impeachment on charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for lying about voluntary ministrations of oral sex by a female White House intern between 1992 and ‘97—sex of any sort being a perennial obsession of politicians and priests, offering the pious bountiful opportunities for hypocrisy. Though he is wildly popular today, the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2001 effectively disbarred Mr. Clinton after his home state of Arkansas suspended his law license.
But we have not punished George W. Bush—or any of his henchmen—for lies considerably more far-reaching than fellatio; lies that should have resulted in his impeachment and removal from office by the Congress. Nor in any formal way have we held the Bush mafia morally accountable for fascistic deeds, as defined by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
Mr. Clark, who served in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, drew up a legal brief containing eighteen predicates for action against Mr. Bush. They include “providing false and deceptive rationales for war…authorizing, ordering, and condoning assassinations, summary executions, kidnappings…torture and psychological coercion of prison to obtain false statements…secret arrests of persons within the United States…[creating] a climate of fear and [destroying] opposition to U.S. wars of aggression and first-strike attacks…crimes against peace and humanity…war crimes.”
Bushian lies spawned horrific violence in Iraq, the death and maiming of hundreds of thousands, and an archipelago of torture chambers manned by sadists of the Central Intelligence Agency. On the bright side, Iraq made millions upon millions of dollars for war profiteers—most notably for Vice President Dick Cheney, head of the Halliburton Corporation prior to becoming Mr. Bush’s wizard of the American military-industrial complex. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is far and away America’s costliest war. The depletion of the U.S. treasury stands at $6 trillion to date (€4.6 trillion), according to a study published in the Los Angeles Times. Millions more in medical and disability payments to veterans with lifelong physical and mental ailments must be spent over the next four decades.
Never mind. Keep quiet. Do not open your real eyes.
President Barack Obama—titular head of the Democratic Party and, as the country’s first black president, the subject of relentless racial innuendo from Republican Party office holders—tells us that we must look forward rather than back a few years to when his predecessor lied the nation into war. And thanks to President Clinton’s removing the U.S. from participation in the International Criminal Court during his tenure in Washington, George Bush and Dick Cheney are not bunkmates in a cell at The Hague awaiting trial for their iniquities.
Instead, Mr. Bush is at home in Texas where he paints mediocre pictures of himself soaking in a bathtub and spritzing beneath a showerhead. Out, damn spot! Out, I say! The ex-president’s lawyers advise him to stay put in Texas because there are certain nations in “Yurp,” as Mr. Bush pronounces the continent, where he could be arrested. Network television programs regularly interview Mr. Cheney, providing him a pulpit for disparaging Mr. Obama with lighter-than-air references to certain negative ethnic stereotypes.
Meanwhile, American hate radio jockeys rival the rhetoric of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer (The Storm) magazine. What should rightly be called the Christian Taliban has supplanted the Republican establishment with far-right, gun-toting imbeciles of the Tea Party. And the people who own the government—namely corporations, which were actually declared human beings and thereby granted all rights of personhood by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—are busily engaged in plotting “strategic ignorance” as a mainstay of social control.
So suggests the New York Times. In a May 25 editorial, the nation’s premier newspaper thundered, “In an age when knowledge is power, restricting knowledge is a power grab, creating the conditions of ignorance that allow bias…and propaganda to flourish, unchallenged and unchecked.”
Such was the great achievement of Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), the son of Armenian immigrants who in the early 1960s founded the “Christian” home schooling movement—by which a disturbing number of American households stamp an anti-intellectual ethos on children. This now happens in as many as two million homes, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Among the more egregious convictions of Mr. Rushdoony’s worldview: the Holocaust never happened, and slavery in America was simply the benevolence that white plantation owners bestowed upon kidnapped Africans.
Likewise, strategic ignorance was the passion of Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), the book-burning racist, founder of the Nazi-friendly newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack), holder of a doctoral degree from Universität Heidelberg, and minister of propaganda during the Third Reich.
America’s version of Doktor Goebbels is an obese, cigar-chomping blowhard named Rush Limbaugh. He is beloved by Tea Party nincompoop “patriots” the likes of Sarah Palin, wild-eyed gun fetishists, the Christian Taliban, and unindicted Wall Street swindlers who bleed their clients—millionaire cheaters led by Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd “Dracula” Blankfein, who in Congressional testimony defended the sale of subprime mortgage securities to the firm’s customers while simultaneously investing company funds in “financial products” wholly dependent on the crash of the subprime mortgage market, which indeed commenced in 2007. Mr. Limbaugh’s daily three hours of propaganda constitutes America’s most popular radio program, despite consumer boycotts against advertisers.
In an April 2011 edition of CounterPunch, a Washington-based online menu of politics and investigative journalism, contributor Tristan Aaron Shaw wrote the following:
We are now beginning to witness a powerful proto-fascism [rising] from the fringes of American society to a recognized political force—one that’s dressed in the flag and clutching the Christian cross. From the Tea Party to militias, from [hatemonger] Rush Limbaugh, the recipe for fascism is brewing, and growing more potent by the day.
The very popular [right-wing broadcasters are] are caught explicitly lying and fabricating stories on a weekly basis…The economic despair that has swept the country is being hijacked by the very same corporate forces that are responsible for the crisis. Let’s be abundantly clear: the Tea Party is not a grassroots movement; rather, it is an astroturf movement, manufactured by the multi-billion dollar Koch Industries and propelled by Rupert Murdoch’s [media empire] and the same élites who lobbied for financial deregulation, which led to today’s economic catastrophe.
History has shown, time and time again, that severe hardship opens the door for social change…[W]hen illiteracy and a sold-out press converge with desperation, a situation we now confront, demagogues and charismatic figures inevitably rise from the crowd and promise revenge to the bewildered, scared, and angry populous.
This is exactly what is beginning to unfold in America today.
Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times and author of “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” updated Mr. Shaw’s mournful analysis during a May 15 interview on National Public Radio, in which he decried a “very frightening and powerful proto-fascist undercurrent” in American society.
“I look at the Tea Party, the militia [movement], the Christian right—where they celebrate the language of violence [and] the gun culture,” said Mr. Hedges, an alumnus of Harvard Divinity School. “[T]hey channel what I would describe as a very legitimate sense of betrayal towards the vulnerable—towards Muslims [and] undocumented workers [as well as] homosexuals, intellectuals, feminists, liberals.”
Six decades ago, the country was “bewildered, scared, and angry” as the result of anti-communist hysteria sired by Joe McCarthy from the cheese-making state of Wisconsin. Senator McCarthy was responsible for the blacklisting of “Reds” supposedly infesting the television and movie industries, labor unions, and the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower—supreme commander of Allied forces during World War II. In copacetic tune with the fascistic exploits of the Dairy State drunkard was Russian émigré Ayn Rand (1905-1982), née Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum. Her execrable novels of the 1940s and ‘50s were paeans to laissez-faire capitalism—required reading nowadays for aides to Congressman Paul Ryan of Mr. McCarthy’s Wisconsin, the Republican Tea Party candidate for vice president last year and a right-wing contender for president in 2016.
Robert Cenedella was a teenager at the apogée of McCarthy-Rand influence. His father—also Robert Cenedella, a prominent New York writer for television and radio—was blacklisted for the indiscretion of persuading the Radio Writers Guild to adopt a resolution objecting to the blacklist. Because the senior Cenedella opposed McCarthyesque dictates that threw teachers and writers and artists and union organizers out of work, he was, ipso-facto, a “com-symp,” shorthand of the day for communist sympathizer.
“He was stunned,” Cenedella fils said of his family’s breadwinner. “Almost immediately, everything fell apart. It was ‘don’t buy this and don’t buy that.’ We ate chicken hearts instead of steak. But we felt righteous.
“We knew that something was obviously wrong,” Mr. Cenedella told me. “There was a sense of right and wrong then. And a sense of outrage. That’s the difference. Now there’s no outrage.”
Wishing to emulate his father, the adolescent Cenedella wrote a satirical essay about air-raid drills, which were mandatory in 1950s schoolrooms. As the drunkard and the schlock author assured educators, wily commies in Moscow were plotting bombing missions over America’s schoolhouses.
When young Robert distributed mimeograph copies of his article to schoolmates and teachers, the indiscretion caused him to be expelled from wehat is now New York City’s High School for Performing Arts. When promised reinstatement on condition that he sign a written oath pledging loyalty to the red-white-and-blue, he did his father proud by refusing the absurdity.
It was the best thing that ever happened to Robert Cenedella, nowadays a self-described political artist of international renown—thanks to continuing his education at New York’s venerable Art Students League, where he became the protégé of George Grosz (1893-1959), the Berlin-born expatriate painter of acidly satiric images.
Joe McCarthy’s hot moment exploded in the cool outrage of legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965), whose evening broadcasts showed the senator, by his own words, for what he truly was: a lying, simian-browed, egomaniacal bully—a fascist.
There is little today that parallels the craft and courage of Mr. Murrow. Which troubles me and my fellow cranks—including my friend and neighbor David Felton, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times who went on to become a founding editor at Rolling Stone magazine and a New York television executive.
American mass media today are profit-driven corporations. Bottom-line interests are served by a non-controversial amalgamation known as “objective” journalism: when at all possible, divert from the complex and nuanced with the entertainment and tittilations—heavy on Hip-Hop, Hollywood, God-addled pols, the insipid pronunciamentos of Sarah Palin and her ilk; crowd out ideological notions beyond the tepid parameters of Democrat and Republican; establish false equivalency between fact-based dialogue and that of the disingenuous, the preposterous, the odious, and the insensate.
“Imagine what it would be like if CNN [an “objective” TV network] was around during the rise of the Third Reich,” said Mr. Felton during a long conversation we had a few weeks ago. “We’d see [correspondent] Anderson Cooper at the scene on Kristallnacht. There would be no commitment to right or wrong. He’d have one commentator saying Jewish rights were taken away, and then somebody in Goebbels’ office saying, ‘Well, but the Jews are rodents.’ See? Just another day in the Third Reich.”
Mr. Felton suggests that forceful police action as effective response to men armed with box-cutters to hijack commercial airliners for use in suicide attacks on iconic structures in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., has been supplanted by the public acceptance of grossly expensive militarism and war—along with the notion that stripping away civil liberties is a guarantor of personal security. Such acceptance translates to victory by “evildoers,” as George Bush would say.
“People are terrified of terrorism,” as Mr. Felton would say. “You’re never going to get the mass public to protest because people are fearful.”
To his credit, President Obama said in a national address on May 26, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle [with terrorism], or else it will define us. We must make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.”
We shall see about that.
Fear is the mother’s milk of fascism. Just how does one protest the other F-word—fear? Especially with the wealthy and powerful imposing government austerity as the cure for economic recession, the abrogation of union contracts that have built the American middle class, warfare seemingly the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and the faux populism of flag-draped Tea Party stooges for the plutocracy.
At mainstream political rallies during the 2012 federal election season, said Mr. Felton, “These [Tea Party] brown shirts used totally fascist techniques to basically shout everybody down. Governors [all of them Republicans] are repealing bargaining laws with public employee unions. They’re turning the poor against each other—“
After a pause for exasperation, he added, “Historically, almost every fascist government has basically meant the power of the rich” who see to it that “we just go play with our iPads while so-called volunteers, the underlings of our society, go to war.”
Mr. Felton stands little chance of being hired at CNN.
“If it’s not fascism that we have,” said Mr. Cenedella, “ it’s just as bad.”
Thomas Adcock is American correspondent for CulturMag.