A Painful Task

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In the debate over conspiracy theories passions can run high. Radio station WBAI scheduled a debate on the journalistic issues raised by broadcasting conspiracy theorists and right-wing experts. One guest connected by phone to the New York studio was KPFA-radio host Dennis Bernstein, dubbed that station's "conspiracy czar" by one local alternative newspaper.43 During the live program Bernstein began alluding to conspiracies to smear and silence him and his guests, then angrily slammed down the phone.

Why have some on the left fallen for the psuedo-radical siren song of the fascist right? Sara Diamond thinks "after 12 years of living as an anti-administration anti-establishment subculture, many in the progressive movement know what they are against, but have lost sight of what they stand for. According to Diamond, this leaves persons susceptible to allying with anyone else that attacks the government." In part its desperation," says Diamond. "We have, in fact, lost influence and become marginal." And, Diamond adds, this happened "against a backdrop of political illiteracy."

This political myopia has been shaped in part by a reliance on the electronic media for news routinely presented in ahistorical, sound-bite packages that fail to make connections or references to even recent history, much less events earlier in this century. Sadly, many Americans developed their understanding of fascism by watching the show "Hogan's Heros" on television. The age of television has promoted style over substance. Demagoguery of all political stripes flourishes in this environment.

Interviewer David Barsamian who produces the syndicated Alternative Radio series from Boulder, Colorado warns that radio personalities who harp on conspiracies are providing entertaining confusion rather than helping listeners focus clearly on complex issues. He says progressives should not fall for "left guruism" where sensational anti-government theories are accepted without any independent critical analysis.

Barsamian feels some on the left have been "mesmerized by the flawless dramatic presentation by Sheehan of the Christic claims" which distracted attention from the "substance of the allegations which don't all check out." This created a climate--even a demand--for elaborate conspiracy theories to flourish. Barsamian acknowledges "we all are longing for simple comforting explanations, but by focusing on The Secret Team, or the Medellin Cartel, we ignore the institutions that keep producing the problems."44

Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer in New York, editorialized in April about the resurgence of fascist ideas around the world. Henwood cited a 50-year-old book by Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, which listed symptoms for a country infected with fascism, including "the spread of irrationalist philosophies, racialist esthetics, anticapitalist demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the `regime,' or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set-up." Henwood writes that "the list is a good description of the political scene in much of the world today--the denunciation of Coca-Cola capitalism by German skinheads, chanted between attacks on Turks and Mozambicans; the racist welfare-baiting of our own demagogues; and ubiquitous, vague, and nihilistic denunciations of `the system' that offer little hope for transformation." Henwood is not surprised to see such symptoms appearing in the U.S., but is dismayed that so many on the left are unaware of the lessons already learned this century.

While conditions in the United States may only faintly echo the financial and social turmoil of the corrupt 1920's German Weimar regime, collapsed by attacks from the left and right, the similarities cannot be dismissed lightly, nor should the catastrophic power of state fascism be confused with the repression of an authoritarian government. Repression can be deadly, but Fascism's terror and mass murder is worse.

The popularity of the film "JFK" proves that now is an appropriate time to take a calm look at some hard questions involving the Warren Commission report, the Kennedy Administration, the Vietnam war, U.S. foreign policy, our burgeoning national security apparatus, and economic justice. But surely we can have this discussion without uncritically circulating the conspiratorial scapegoating fantasies of the far right.

Monique Doryland of the Bay Area Pledge of Resistance has seen the group's office on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland vandalized this year by graffiti spray painted across their walls. Their answering machine has been tampered with. The messages included homophobic, racist, anti-Jewish, and anti-communist epithets. Members of a visible neo-Nazi movement in the Bay Area are the prime suspects. Doryland was "appalled" when she heard persons suggesting "making common cause with the far right as a technique to bring down the conservative center and George Bush. It seems so ridiculous to seriously suggest working with fascists," says Doryland. "That's not how you build an authentic response to either right-wing or mainstream Republican deprivation of social programs. We have to be clear as progressive people that fascists, no matter what their camouflage, are not our friends."

The dilemma for left activists is to sort out the various strains of fascist ideology circulating in the United States and the world. It is a dangerous folly to ignore the threat to democracy posed by critics of the current administration who also promote fascism.

Author George Seldes reached his 100th birthday in 1990 as the early editions of this report were first being researched and written. More than half a century earlier, in 1938, Seldes wrote You Can't Do That, a book with a prophetic warning about how fascism comes to power as the result of a pincer movement between authoritarian state repression supported by corporate elites and mass movements sparked by ultra-rightist demagogues. Seldes wrote:

We must guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism, especially that patriotism which is the last refuge of scoundrels and which is so prevalent, so professional and so well paid nowadays. Eternal vigilance must become more than the slogan for small associations desperately fighting almost overwhelming cases of infringements on individual liberties.

We must realize that those who use red-baiting to attack every liberal and democratic movement today, are the armed cutthroats of reactionary Fascism tomorrow.

Two facts emerge from any study of European turmoil and the new class alignment in our own land. The enemy is always the Right. Fascism and Reaction inevitably attack. They have won against disunion. They will fail if we unite.

While revealing our government's policies as corrupt, we must not concede the debate over foreign policy and domestic social justice to the demagogues on either the left or the right. If these people monopolize the debate, then political discourse in the U.S. will soon echo the themes of the fascist era in Europe where hysteria and holocaust, blood and bounty, blind patriotism and deaf obedience became synonymous with the national spirit.

While the concept of broad-based peace and social justice coalitions remains desirable, activists and their coalitions should be very careful to examine the backgrounds and ideologies of those groups with which we seek to build coalitions.

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