Blogs > Cliopatria > A Cultural Mission to Civilize

Oct 19, 2004 4:31 pm

A Cultural Mission to Civilize

Cliopatriarch Jonathan Dresner asked yesterday whether or not we should compare current American politics to fascism. I am usually cautious in this matter: it’s too easy to vilify a person or nation by identifying them with history’s greatest villains. However, historians might have to start using the “f” word more critically.

HDS Greenway wrote an article for Friday’s Boston Globe that compares the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration with the eagerness of German nationalists to prove their ascendancy to the world:
One has to wonder if, among those discontented intellectuals of the Bush administration, there was not a similar impatience with America's"belle epoque," the decade of peace and plenty between the end of the Soviet Union and 9/11. Some of the Republicans close to Bush today called themselves"the Vulcans" after the Roman god of fire. Did they perceive a moral decay and a lack of imperial will in that brief, fin de siecle age of Bill Clinton, whom they despised? Did they perhaps see in the sloppy Clinton White House, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the modern equivalent of an Oscar Wilde age waiting to be swept away by the harder values of the right?

Did the German plans for war in 1914 and the German dream of spreading Kultur to other nations by force have their echo a century later in America with the pre- 9/11 plans to invade Iraq in order to spread democracy and American Kultur to lesser breeds without the law? If so, then the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 and Sept. 11, 2001, provided both sets of narcissistic idealists with the crisis they needed to put their plans into action.

On the surface I would say that Greenway’s argument is a stretch. Certainly Bush believes in a version of democracy that is rooted in the “homeland”, and it is closer to German Kultur than French civilisation.

There are limits to how much democracy can be spread around the world. Tony Judt notes that democracies tend to make poor empires. The electoral process makes financing imperial projects difficult. Citizens of democracies tend to be uneasy about spreading democracy by means of empire (see the Barbarians in the Roman Senate or the Germans in the French Revolution’s National Assembly). Furthermore, American power is virtual: based on financial and political influence. Bush’s “homeland” democracy is a worse product for the world market: it is entwined with the peculiarities of rural American life, open spaces and fundamentalism. The democracy that the administration has exported has been abstract.

There are other comparisons that could be useful, such as the French Revolution. Matt Yglesias offers Putinization. However, I have my doubts that we should not talk about Fascism. Regardless of what version of American values will be distributed throughout the world, whether or not they are in conflict with Bush’s vision of democracy, they are the result of the will to remake the world–internally and externally. As Suskind quoted an administration aide over the weekend:
We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Arrogance of will has no bounds. The determination to actualize American superiority resembles German imperial policies from the naval build-ups all the way to the Third Reich. (Of course, Germany was a better world power in virtuality than in actuality).

Is it too early to start talking about Fascism? Stay where you are, Jonathan, I am coming over to your side.

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Daniel B. Larison - 10/19/2004

There are certain, eerie similarities between the bizarre apocalyptic warnings of some "conservative" (I use the term advisedly and only for convenience) pundits about the disaster that will engulf the country if WWIV is not aggressively prosecuted. This does have a very real sense of Weltmacht oder Niedergang about it. However, I would not stress the point too far, if only because pre-1914 German ambitions were born out of a position of being a second-tier power seeking to overcome disparities of power with Entente states. The willingness to encourage instability and revolution in enemy states is similar to German WWI efforts, but this is not something specific to German imperialists by any means. Their embrace of preemptive war is so strikingly similar to the same tactic accepted by extremists in Germany and Austria that it is a wonder that this comparison has not yet become a commonplace one.

In terms of ideological content of the present administration, I think the fascist label makes much more sense in some very specific ways. Neoconservative authors in particular have an obsession with violence, will, action and resoluteness as creative forces that is as close to a "classic" fascist revolutionary attitude as there is today. Their valorisation of war is likewise very similar. The constant invocation of freedom is not necessarily contradictory with a proto-fascist ideology, especially when it can serve to blunt the edge of aggressive war or be cast in terms of serving particularly nationalist goals as well.

I believe that the weird mix of internationalism (in the sense of global intervention) and nationalism that Mr. Bush offers is just the sort of excessive, shallow and entirely ideological kind that is actually quite divorced from any connection--real or imagined--to popular culture or attitudes, except insofar as his supporters have themselves embraced and identified with these degenerate ideas. At the same time, his lieutenants have been very good at pressing all the right buttons to lead many ordinary Americans to believe that their identity, faith, culture or way of life is somehow integrally bound up in this utterly godless and irredeemable enterprise.

This is not to say that everything that happened under fascist and Nazi regimes is being replicated, but I think it is perfectly fair to say that the same radical rhetoric and the same bad assumptions about reality and human nature are gaining credibility amid the ruins of the "conservative movement" and Republican Party that captured the initiative from more staid German conservative elites.