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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The virtue of incivility

The Arizona tragedy caused many to call for a new civility in American discourse. I would like to argue in favor of not being civil.

As most readers know, I view the Tea Partiers as an American fascist movement. That statement shocks many. But it will not be controversial to anyone who has studied fascist movements in Europe in the pre-1933 period or the post-1945 period, and it won't surprise anyone who has read the forgotten history of American fascism in the 1930s.

Alas, too many Americans do not know that history, and they view fascism purely in terms of the way Hitler wielded power. The beast acts differently when getting into position than it does after it has attained control.

Fascism must not be defined purely in terms of anti-Semitism, German nationalism, militarism, or even the cult-like reverence directed toward Adolf Hitler. Mussolini was not a notable anti-Semite (except when prodded by Hitler). There were (and are) many fascists outside of Germany -- Subash Chandra Bose, Julius Evola, Eduard Limonov, Robert Matthews and many, many thousands of others. During the war, some non-German fascists didn't care about Germany, and some even opposed Germany. Most people don't know that there were pro-fascist generals on Douglas McArthur's staff. (I've spoken to the son of one of those generals.) A surprising number of fascists have denounced Hitler -- for example, Tom Metzger believes that Hitler was "a pawn of the Jews," and Myron Fagan used to insist that Nazi Germany was run by the Rothschilds. There have been fundamentalist Protestant fascists, Catholic fascists, Islamic fascists, Hindu fascists, pagan fascists, occultist fascists, atheist fascists -- and even Jewish fascists.

Those who sneer at the idea that the Tea Partiers represent a fascist movement have no idea of fascism's scope, appeal, manifold disguises or insidiousness. They also never understood Huey Long's observation: "When Fascism comes to America, they will call it anti-Fascism."

The tea party movement represents the very thing that I have feared for two decades: The extreme right made mainstream. Now the question is: How should we treat the growing fascist menace in America? Can we speak to them in a civil manner? Are they even capable of reasonable dialogue?

The answer depends on the stage of fascism.

If fascists gain control of this country -- I don't refer to a mere electoral victory; I refer to overturning our constitution (and their talk of a “second constitution” is code for doing just that) -- then we will have no choice. We must take up arms and kill them. Plain and simple.

That is a hard saying. But that’s the way fascism was fought in all of occupied Europe in the 1940s; how can it be any different here?

If tea partiers create a successful secession movement, then, once again, we must take up arms and kill the seccessionists. Why? For the same reason that Abraham Lincoln was willing to do just that. My position will not be controversial to anyone who thinks that the Union was on the correct side in the Civil War.

(Incidentally, I hold with those who believe that the Confederacy was the first fascist state.)

We haven't yet reached that grim stage. I hope that we never do.

Until that time, the best recourse is fierce, unrelenting verbal opposition.

I would counsel people to talk to the tea partiers the same way one talks to someone wearing a swastika or Klan robes. Talk to the neo-Birchers, the Alex Jonesians, the Dominionists, and the CD-ers the same way you would talk to a Holocaust revisionist: Reluctantly, rarely, and always with a tone of sneering disgust.

Eventually — I hope — many among their number will tire of being treated that way. Ridicule, social ostracization and a lack of career advancement will put the tea partiers back into the margins.

You know why the Holocaust revisionists never made many converts in this country? Not because Americans understood the true facts. Since when do Americans give a damn about facts? No, people steered clear of revisionist arguments because they saw that the people making those arguments were usually treated as the scum of the earth. No-one wants to be treated like the scum of the earth.

For similar reasons, the 9/11 truth movement is dying. The good guys didn’t win that one on the facts, even though the facts were on our side. We won because too many truthers behaved oafishly, and normal people started treating them with disdain. Trutherism, in short, became uncool.

By contrast: Creationism is far, far more widespread now than when I was a boy. Only 48% of the populace believes in evolution today; that figure was above 80% in the 1960s (if I recall correctly). Why has Creationism taken hold with half the population? Perhaps because scientific-minded people have been too damned polite and deferential -- too civil -- when dealing with religious fanaticism. Whenever scientists and professors mount fact-based arguments in favor of evolution, they always come across as studiously non-combative, apologetic, simpering and soft. The reasonable approach has failed. The Bill Maher approach may work better: “YOU JACKASSES ARE A BUNCH OF FUCKING MORONS!”

Incivility has worked when civil discourse has failed.

So — yeah, I advocate relentless opposition to tea party fascists. If you call this approach "verbal dehumanization," so be it.

I don’t know if that strategy will work.

I do know that all other methods will fail.
There - did that change anything?
Probably not (other than potentially pissing you off).

Actually, I don't think you're a moron. But I do think that you're wrong in part.

This is a complex topic and I don't have time to go through much right now. I'll just hit a couple points.

When white supremacists tried to set up shop in towns in Idaho and Montana a decade ago or so, a pattern emerged. In towns where people tried to ignore them, the groups successfully proselytized and grew. In towns where at least some people had the gumption to organize against them - protesting their presence and trying to make them feel unwelcome in various ways, the groups withered and died. However, as Hannah Arendt might point out - this only works if you have the large bulk of the people (the bulk of public opinion) behind you (that's where the power to do this is coming from).

Another problem is that, in my view, the heavy use of contempt and hate-filled rhetoric is a contagion that started on the right, then infected the left (e.g. Kos, etc.). It's left everyone blind and stupid, and has major downsides (witness the last election). Double edged sword. BTW - that doesn't mean that I'm advocating some sort of passive quisling bend-over-and-be-quiet position (ala Obama's "vaunted" speech). But as Valhalla said elsewhere - "Versailles" has taken so much from us - why let them steal/falsify/co-opt the very meaning of "civil".

With evolution - and this is probably my main point - I teach evolution (at a university). To lots of undergrads. And I've done it for over a decade. "I do know that all other methods will fail" is not supported, at least on this particular. When you tell the creationist ones essentially that they're fucking morons, nothing changes for the better - in fact, just the opposite. Studies show (and this concords with my own experience) that showing contempt for the creationism beliefs, or even just teaching evolution as "straight facts" produces a weird kind of wedge effect. The creationist students just get more entrenched in their positions - and, amazingly, the beliefs of a bunch of students who were more middle-of-the-road to begin with will shift in a more creationist direction. They'll all understand the material, and be able to answer questions correctly on a test - but their beliefs don't change in the way you want (basically, they'll just have learned not to talk about it in class, and they just batten down the hatches on the belief system).

Meanwhile - perspective taking (trying to get in their heads) and engaging their prior learning and beliefs (with some modicum of respect) actually can produce a dramatic shift toward accepting evolution. E.g. one study showing this was published in Bioscience (55:996, 2005) and it fits with my own experience with undergrads on this topic. It's tricky - this is totally not the same thing as "teach the controversy" crap, that tries to be "fair and balanced" (i.e. that just reinforces beliefs in the potential validity of creationism).

I also participate in an annual "Darwin Day" - and I do have to say that, per your description, a lot of evolutionary biologists, when speaking to the public, are so afraid of offending anyone (and go so egghead intellectual) that they're useless.

Recently I've been reading about debiasing (i.e. debiasing beliefs) with an eye on how to do something positive regarding the current political situation. I think there's some potential in the literature on this.

Also, I used to have almost a full bookcase about fascism/Nazis/Holocaust myself - alas, when I moved in with a girlfriend (into an overly small apartment) she convinced me to put all my books in her storage locker, but didn't tell me that she had stopped paying the fees on it.
BTW - thought I should add a comment just to insure that no-one misinterprets the opening line of my prior comment (e.g. mistakenly taking it at face value). It's meant just as an illustration of the downside of "incivility".

Two other quick points.
1. Social sensitivity trumps IQ in collective intelligence (e.g. quality of social decisionmaking).

2. It seems to me that expression of uncivil contempt/anger at Loughner-types would make them more rather than less likely to act out violently.

Pretty much my thought while reading.
Gallop polls from 1982 to present actually show a gradual increase in belief in evolution (not decline).
I couldn't find actual poll data for earlier dates, but articles seem to suggest that belief in evolution was at even lower levels in the 1960s (not even taught in many or most public schools in 1950s; teaching of evolution apparently started gradually improving post-Sputnik).
Which definition of fascism are you using, Joseph?

Just going to copy&paste a couple of posts from Myiq's TC thread yesterday:

LandOLincoln, on January 19, 2011 at 7:40 pm said:

If I’m transported back to 1929 Germany, knowing what I know now, I would probably shoot Hitler–and only Hitler, because without a charismatic leader no movement goes anywhere.
And wasn’t it you who–just a year ago– was characterizing the IDF as Nazis?* Quite properly IMO, but that’s because they comprise the official armed forces of a nation/state.
Point being, I’m a lot more worried about the (capital F) Fascists in power NOW than I am about the (small f) fascist tendencies of people who will never be allowed to come within a country mile of that power, and btw that includes Sarah Palin.

*Because of their savagery in Gaza

gxm17, on January 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm said:

Joe, the problem with the premise of your thought experiment is that we already know the outcome of the Hitler regime. We can’t apply precognition to current day politics. Will tomorrow’s American Hitler ride the Tea Party wave into power? IMO that’s highly unlikely. The corporatists are in control and I don’t see them losing or abdicating said control anytime soon.
The dismantling of American democracy started years ago. The damage is done. We will not find the savior of Democracy to the right…or to the left. After all, the current Corporate Tool (CoTUS) came from the “leftmost” party. The biggest and most pressing problem Americans face is the fact that we have no one, not one single politician, who is even remotely on our side. We are, quite truly, fucked.
Affinis: About the percentages, I confess that I'm going on a hazy memory of a poll I read when all of 12. I do know that it was considered somewhat shocking actually to MEET a creationist back in, say, 1970. It was rare then.

djimm: You ask an interesting question. I just glanced at Wikipedia's definition of fascism, and wasn't really happy with it -- and I don't think that it applies to many forms of American fascism. There's an inherent dichotomy here, in that Euro-fascism is traditionally nationalistic while American fascism has often promoted secession and disunion. Actually, so did Russian fascism until the advent of National Bolshevism. Fascists have often tended to speak to the ethnic separatist tendencies of various minority groups in various nations. They seem to want most countries to be broken down into constituent parts -- except Germany, of course.

Also, any definition needs to include a conspiratorialist view of reality. Not all conspiracists are fascists, but all fascists are conspiracists. We should compile a list of pointers, a la Jeff Foxworthy: "If you think a bunch of guys who wear aprons and hold trowels secretly run the world, you MAY be a fascist."

Subject for another post, methinks.

Affinis again:

"It seems to me that expression of uncivil contempt/anger at Loughner-types would make them more rather than less likely to act out violently."

Perhaps, but it is also likely to keep the Alex Jones-ian belief system relegated to the Loughner types.

My great fear -- the fear which motivates my post -- is that all of this crap I've seen in extremist literature over the years will no longer be relegated to the intellectual ghetto. When that stuff becomes mainstream -- say goodbye to America, because it's all over.

I've always feared, maybe predicted, that one day the works of Nesta Webster would be taught in schools -- that kids would grow up believing in the Illuminati. Frankly, we have almost reached that point. That shit may not be taught in schools, but a lot of kids don't get their history from schoolbooks anymore. They get it from guys like Alex Jones and George Noory.

So, yeah, that's why the tea party scares the shit out of me, as did the militia maniacs of the 1990s. They normalize the fringe.

I still fear that one day Holocaust revisionism will be accepted. It's not as though Katie Couric is going to announce that six million Jews were never killed. But I fear that one day -- 2040, 2070, whatever -- someone doing Katie Couric's job will start to slip in a gentle rewrite of history: "A famous historian today announced that the figure of of six million may be inflated..."

And that's how it will start.

affinis: About those studies showing the "wedge" effect when it comes to the teaching of evolution. It's not enough for ONE teacher to display contempt for creationism. An ENTIRE SOCIETY has to show unmitigated contempt. That contempt for scientific illiteracy has to be palpable every time kids turn on the teevee or hop on the internet or, god forbid, open a book.

Trust me: Once you get that sort of society-wide contempt for creationism going on, you will END the thing. Or at least marginalize it. That's how creationism was ghetto-ized in the more civilized countries of Europe.
affinis: A further note. About the storage locker thing -- the EXACT SAME thing happened to me. Well, almost exact.
Here's the definition of (capital F) Fascism, according to some Italian dude named Benito:

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power."

The US is already a Fascist state, and the (capital F) Fascists aren't going to let any (lowercase f) fascists anywhere near the reins of power, which is the point of the two TC posts I quoted earlier.
Joseph, I was not happy with the Wikipedia definition either, which made me wonder. LandofLincoln provides a good one, which includes an element of what I think of as fascism: (1) often cult leadership, few limits on executive power; (2)strong restrictions on individual rights, especially of speech and of minorities; and (3)(which gets to LandofLincoln's definition) unholy symbiotic relationship between corporations and the State. (Mind you, I like corporations, but with reasonable regulation.) Along with item (2), fascist regimes often use minorities as scapegoats for whatever problems they have (but so do other type of regimes). But I am not sure any of these characteristics would be used by a scholar. (??)

There is a wide variation in Teaparty members/sympathizers. There are extreme people within the group, but I do not think the majority want to secede (despite Rick Perry) or to overturn the Constitution and I think most of them are opposed to corporate bailouts by the government. They are not stupid: they know most in the country are not getting a fair deal but target the wrong solutions. They do worry me when it come to individual rights (and I do not think most understand our monetary system).

Shame might isolate the worst people. The problem I see with your approach, Joseph, is that it does not address the well-intentioned majority, especially the young. (I am not talking about the types The Southern Poverty Law Center takes on.) Again, many are not stupid: they trust the wrong people, believe "facts" from this website or that talking head or from trusted figure like their priest or preacher or Glen Beck. It takes time, but sometimes people can learn to unlearn what they think they "know." But it cannot be done by shaming them.

Persuasion is more difficult than name calling and is different even than debating. You can win a debate without persuading the other side.

Persuasion leads the subject to change their own mind or to see thing in a new way. It is like laying a stone path out of a swamp, so that the subject feels comfortable when they step on the first rock and feel it is steady, which makes him or her comfortable to take the next step and the next, until they are out of the swamp and can breathe the clean air.

But it is not easy and it is not quick.

Affinis, I enjoyed your comments. I have addressed evolution with relatives, by starting the discussion with dog breeding.

Affinis comments:

It seems to me that expression of uncivil contempt/anger at Loughner-types would make them more rather than less likely to act out violently.

I interpret Joseph's point as advocating contempt towards the idea, not the person. (Though I wonder if the shorthand of naming movements after people obscures this point).

I think society needs reminding that people are not their ideas. You hate ideas, there are ideas we would like to kill, but we don't want to feel this way towards people.

People can change their minds; but ideas are what they are.

In recent decades, people on the left hawking political correctness have undoubtedly contributed to the confusion on this point. For example, it's bad when members of a group benefiting from affirmative action label all opponents of such a policy "racist." It's worse to invent justifications for doing so. Irrationality is corrosive to the foundations of liberal society.

One distinguishing feature of fascist ideologies is that they conflate groups of persons with ideas. For example, let's suppose a person objects to affirmative action. The fascist lashes out against the minorities perceived to benefit from the policy. But a thinking person who objects to affirmative action distinguishes between people and the idea.

Humanists get it. Religious people who understand the mantra "love the sinner, hate the sin," get it too.

Fascists certainly don't get it.
LoL, I know the Mussolini quote very well. And it is an important corrective to the nonsense that Beck spews.

Here's the problem with your application of that quote: Your definition of a "capital F" Fascist could have been applied to von Schleicher, Bruning, von Papen...

My point being that there were a lot of lefties in Weimar Germany who could not imagine a worse government than the one that THOSE guys ran.

Similarly, I think there are a lot of lefties who cannot imagine something worse than Dubya or Obama.
"I interpret Joseph's point as advocating contempt towards the idea, not the person."

Nope. I advocate making the person feel as shitty as possible.

Look at it this way. Why wouldn't you go out of your house wearing pink-and-green striped fuzzy pants and a purple-and-blue polka-dot shirt? BECAUSE EVERYONE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

If we all start laughing just as loudly at creationists -- voom! They scurry indoors.

Or take the "Zeitgeist" movie, which was gaining some popularity on the left. The guys who made "Zeitgeist" probably want you to think that their average viewer is a handsome young Rhodes scholar with an IQ of 166. Get rid of that image. Plug in Jared Loughner. Make HIM the face of "Zeitgeist." Suddenly, the film seems like the kind of thing that would appeal only to brainless psychos.

See how it works?
I just thought of a much more pertinent illustration.

When I was a boy -- back when Nixon said "We're all Keynesians now" -- the followers of Ayn Rand dwelt in an intellectual ghetto. Serious people did not heed them. Serious people laughed at them.

And now...
I just wrote about the guy they arrested in Arlington, MA with an arsenal and a blog and twitter history of advocating shooting more congresspeople because the Federal Government has gone beyond what he considered constitutional limits. I put his stuff in the context of skinheads and other right wing militia groups that hate the federal government, consider it illegitimate, and advocate violent revolution. He evidently was a big Rand Paul fan. Then, I linked to it on facebook and immediately got a comment from a yuppie libertarian that told me he was distressed that I didn't see the difference between skinheads and white supremacists and him. Other than some of them are christian based and go after gays and birth control using women, and some of them are KKK based and go after minorities, and some of them are more generalized in what they hate, they all have the same patterns: militias, hate federal government, think the federal government is illegitimate and is acting against their interests. They're mostly white males too. The hate may be aimed at more specific targets, but the patterns are too similar and the anti-government rhetoric is basically sourced in the same philosophy. They're eggs from the same basket. They're right wing domestic terrorists and they've left trail of violence.
Fraenkel "The Dual State"
I think a big part of the problem is the traditional gatekeepers no longer do their jobs.

You bring to mind the pandering op-eds on the topic that keep appearing in the NYT.

Then you have -- Affinis alluded to this -- the egg-head scientists who can name vertebrae but don't seem to know what it is to have one.

And you also have school classrooms, where teachers aren't accorded respect, and are told what textbooks they may or may not use, and basically treated like morons. (The creationists have helped to write the textbook, or had a say on the content, in a some states). Imagine if society accorded attorneys as little respect as it does the teacher.

As for the call to ridicule, I'm certainly not opposed to it, but I wouldn't support it in all cases. I think the approach needs depends on the audience.

In a classroom setting, it's hard to argue with Affinis when he observes "engaging their prior learning and beliefs (with some modicum of respect) actually can produce a dramatic shift ." That's fundamental.

But if you're an editor of a newspaper you shouldn't hesitate to ridicule pseudo-science and its pretenders. In fact, it's your duty to do so.

And a good part of the problem is with the media. I think we have to consider that the owners of the media actually want the public to be stupid. There's no bottom-line incentive for news producers to serve as gatekeepers. After all, TV advertising works best when the audience doesn't think, but just soaks up the messages.
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