Absolute Recoil

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I can admit that Zizek – as brilliant and original as his writing is – does have a slight tendency to copy himself. Certain jokes, certain passages tend to repeat every now and again through the ranks of his books. I will even go so far as to say some of his books are simply random collections of things Zizek felt like commenting and that have been published just because it’s Zizek.

Absolute Recoil is not one of these books. In fact, this title is a cornerstone of Zizek’s system, one of the most comprehensive and concise formulations I have encountered so far. The title is taken from the writings of Hegel and is meant to describe the moment when one polar extreme immpiedtaly gives rise to its exact polar opposite, and that “moment/movement” itself, the moment of “absolute recoil” is the very thing that gives coherence and meaning to the two polar opposites in a larger sense. I should probably mention that this takes places on a level of what is ultimately deep human psychology.

I will not claim to fully understand “absolute recoil” or some of the other more abstruse points of Hegelese, this is quite simply my understanding of what I have read.

Zizek is a proponent of “dialectical materialism” a rich vein of philosophical thought whose’ philosophical insight has been only grown in proportion to its lack of political success. The idea of “dialectical” or “the dialectic” harkens back to Plato and Socrates, but was given its more modern interpretation by Hegel. The idea behind the dialectic, at its deepest, most fundamental point is that Rationality (again, in it’s fullest, most complete majesty) is comprised of an ongoing, moving tension. Based on Plato’s idea that true wisdom emerged through rigorous conversation, I like to think of “dialectical-ness” as the formal recognition that the means are an end to themselves. The unity of opposities, the idea that tension is the only constant, the idea that the cycle or the change is the reality all stem from ‘dialectical thinking.’ Anytime a logic of “two sides of the same coin” are at work, you are in dialectical thought.

Materialism is the idea that all is grounded in a tangible, tactile reality. It’s best to think of Karl Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure when thinking about materialism:  there is the way humankind makes and produces its food and shelter (the base) and the superstructure is everything else, which results from the way we go about producing what we need. In this light, the internet’s obsession with cats has more too do with neoliberal office methods/stresses of work than with any sort of natural cuteness of cates. Obviously, this is a powerful way of seeing the world; it often dismisses ideology and the power of ideas out of hand.

You might be able to tell from reading the above paragraphs that “dialectical materialism” is a bit of a paradox in itself; it points both towards the lofty realm of idealism bordering on eastern mysticism and the brutal, realpolitik ground that dismisses that same idealism as an illusion generated by systemisation of power drawn from modes of production. Upon reflection however, and in true “dialectical” tradition, the unity of these two opposites capture a much higher standard of rationality which escapes the narrow, small mindedness of positivism and the abyss of moral relativism that deconstructionism leads to.

With this book, Zizek is attempting to restart this great tradition. It’s an attempt to put a much maligned and even more misunderstood way of thinking back on the map. Will it be successful…?

We can only hope.

The Monkey Wrench Gang

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Another book which has gained in relevance over the past few years, The Monkey Wrench Gang is the story of four brave souls who set out to stop the ecological destruction of the American West by sabotaging construction machinery, bridges, and power plants. Complete with a happy ending, this story mixes Hunter S. Thompson hi-jinks with a deeper environmental and sociological message.

Part of the reason why I picked this book up was because of the legacy of Edward Abbey himself, a legitimate representative of the great American tradition of independents, libertarians and free thinkers a la Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Muir. Abbey clearly drank deeply from the the sacred font of wisdom which is Walden. One of Abbey’s most well known quotes is “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” which is directly inspired by Thoreau’s meditation on ant society; where the business of American society is directly compared to an ant hill. “Of course we are busy” asks Thoreau, “but what are we busy about?” Or something to that effect.

Abbey is best thought of as the same generation of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Abbey’s frame of reference and reading of the American political and social landscape is distinctly that of the early Baby Boomer generation; by that I mean that formative group of people who seemed to shepherd in the Hippie movement.

I will admit to being disappointed in this book – especially since several people commented on how much they loved Edward Abbey while I was reading it – therefore a little disillusioned with people in general. I still cannot decide if Abbey consciously modded himself after Hunter S. Thompson or they shared a similar cast of mind and similar audience. Simply put, Abbey is the poor man’s Thompson and the ecologically concerned man’s Kerouac (Kerouac was always about being cool).

Rather than focus on the why – the deep and multifaceted justification for their actions – and evaluating and reflecting on the powerful corporate and social forces which perpetuate ecological destruction, Abbey likes to dwell on the actual details of the sabotage escapades; what stands out in the book is the sensuous landscapes of the south west, lovingly described, followed by desperately mediocre character scenes followed by not-all-that-suspense sabotage scenes which often feel more like a fraternity hazing stunt  rather than action that would be instantly labeled “ecoterrorism” by the Media.

The four characters do strike an interesting symbolic balance. There is Dr. Sarvis; a gentleman and scholar, a character who represents classical Enlightenment thought an the academic’s concern for the natural world based on the large, classic sense of Reason. Then there is Seldom Seen Slim, a jack Mormon and river guide who can be understood to represent sincere and open faith, viewing the destruction of the landscape and ecosystem as a crime against God. Third is George Hayduke; probably the most pathos-filled character and could only have been created in the universe of post-Vietnam America. Hayduke is a Vietnam veteran who sees the destruction of the environment as simple a continuation of Vietnam; the war has shifted to his home. He is the only character who consistently advocates violence and a path towards true terrorism; he is by far the most unrealistic character. Last is the lady interest. She’s from New York and Jewish; chic and into Buddhism, she lends glamor to the otherwise sex-appeal-less male characters.

Abbey does a poor job of making a case for environmentalism. He flounders at articulating exactly why we as a society should be motivated to take action. His characters are one-dimensional and forced. Some of his other books might be better – I understand that he has something of a autobiography – but The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty easy to skip. Read Ecotopia instead.

Gai-Jin

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When I was teenager, was handed James Clavell’s Shogun, a masterpiece of exciting historical fiction. Drawing inspiration from real historical figures and a real global-historical context, Shogun was vivid and dramatic, and intoxicating mix of cloak-and-dagger, Robinson Crusoe, and epic, sweeping narrative. It was a book that read like a movie.

I have re-read Shogun several times, and each time enjoyed it throughly. I am sorry to report that Clavell’s other ventures in writing are far less successful. Clavell actually wrote about half a dozen novels based on a similar formula to Shogun: a culture clash between East and West, set in East Asia, dramatic characters caught up in wheels-within-wheels intrigue and passion. Gai-Jin is the third in the “series” set in Yokohama in the early 1860s, when foreign governments where first trading with Japan after the expedition of Commodore Perry. I have previously read Tai-Pan, the second in the series; the books are all linked in many ways, though each can pretty much stand on its own.

Gai-Jin, like Tai-Pan focus more on European/English characters; and both badly fail to live up the awesomeness that is Shogun. What is used to great effect in Shogun comes off as kitschy or trite or cliche in his other books. The tricks seem predicable; the endless cunning and seeming depth of characters in Shogun are recycled, but clumsily. Not only did I not care about the plot in Gai-Jin (there was no sense of building towards a climax, no sense of larger purpose), but each character seemed essentially the same: calculating, but blinded by their rather shallowing passion.

I picture James Clavell, the toast of society after Shogun. Then, after a month or so, his editor calls him in and says “Wow, James, Shogun is amazing. When can we expect the next one? Oh, and by the way, can you write it with a screenplay in mind?” And to me, that’s the secret of Gai-Jin. It was meant to be turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s very much like a HBO series in book form (I’m specifically thinking of The Tudors here): the same dozen-or-so-characters swirl around in pomp and splendour and cunning and drama but really not all that much happens, despite many dramatic scenes. Really, the fact that the Clavell books are not HBO-ized I find seriously shocking.

Read Shogun. Do not bother with the rest.

Silence

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Silence by Shusaku Endo is an intense, personal exploration of faith and a meditation on Japan and Japanese christianity. It’s no wonder then that Endo is known as the Graham Green of Japan, an author who similarity broods on the mysteries of (Catholic) faith. I’m thinking here of The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, books that center around a man in a sticky situation wrestling with faith.

Set in late 17th century Japan, after the golden age of Catholic expansion and influence  had come to an end and persecution was the order of the day by Japanese authorities, this is the story of the last Catholic priest and his apostasy. To provide some historical background, the Portuguese established Nagasaki in 1570 and proceeded to get rich as the middleman of the silk trade between China and Japan. At the height of Jesuit power and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Japan was the target of serious missionary work, and at one point there was thought to be over 400,000 converts. This all came to a close as the Tokugawa Shogunate established itself and in part an effort for social homogeneity, effected not only the sealing off of Japan to the outside world, but a brutally effective campaign to snuff out Catholicism. The appeal of Catholicism in Japan was based on the misery of the peasants, often treated as less-than-human. I think it’s fair to say that Catholicism has had an appeal in all feudal societies.

Father Rodriguez, the main character, travels to Japan to investigate the apostasy of Father Fierria, the last ranking Father in Japan. After an arduous journey, he meets a strange Japanese man in Macao who guides Rodriquez to some still-believing Japanese peasant villages. Initially things go well, but Rodriguez is eventually captured by the samurai and begins his own personal Calvary. Rich in dazzling caparisons to the Biblical story of Jesus, the conclusion is complex and complicated. Some readers will find it deeply fulfilling, others will be less happy with it.

I would not call this book “enjoyable” but it certainlly is interesting and works on the level of personal faith but also on the cultural level of “why did Catholicism not take root in Japan?”

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the top-shelf works of dystopian fiction that has suddenly become urgently relevant with the Trump presidency. While America in 2017 chillingly reminds me of 1984‘s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”, The Handmaid’s Tale addresses a different side of the strange alchemy of conservatism which made Trump possible: the Mike Pence-ian, Evangelical, vision of America.

The Tale is set in a future New England town, after the liberal-democratic order has truely fallen, subverted by a mixture of violence and political manipulation. In this dark, religiously fuelled totalitarianism known as the “Republic of Gilead,” women truely are the property of men. The underlying logic and assumptions behind the Old Testament vision of sexes are taken to is logical conclusion. Thus, “Offred,” our heroine, is a “handmaid,” sort of fertility prostitute for a high-ranking “Commander,” who presides over a walled-off suburb for the elect with his “Wife” and “Martha” (housekeeper)”.

This is a deeply stirring book – I was struck by the subtle depth of the writing, which often resembles poetry as much as descriptive narrative. Atwood as a writer is a master at using the “gaps” – what is not said, or what is said when – to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Silences are eloquent in the Republic of Gilead. The story thus manages to be a intense psychological and emotional journey through loneliness and exploration of the relationships between women and women, and men and women and a scathing, eerie depiction of what a truely Evangelical America would mean.

For example, the “Aunts” – the women who train the Handmaids and are the ideological shock troops so to speak – shame the Handmaids in training for being sluts, i. e., “its your fault you got raped” and then extol the new theocratic order because it “protects women” even as the Republic of Gilead is more or less a system of systematic, institutionally approved rape.

My wife literally could not put this book down, and it’s clear why: this books is a mix of first class writing, intense psychological perspective and dystopian terror.

The Limits of Disenchantment

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In the sickly, demented light of the post-Trump world, the basic problems and ideas of the book remain perfectly relevant and important. The ideas, problems and insights of books like this seem ever more rare and baroque to me; something like the last ember of a dying campfire.

The main strains of European philosophy: Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis and Deconstructionism are in tern examined and put through the philosophical ringer by Peter Dews, who is clearly a master thinker in his own right.

It’s a tour de-force of sheer thinking about thinking. Not for the uninitiated, untrained or faint of heart. I do not think that Dews even has a main point; this book is a buffet of – well – contemporary European philosophy.

The Name of the Rose

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Umberto Eco is one of those authors that you consistently hear about – a reference here, a mention there, but never have a rabid following. They’re respected, but certainlly no J.K. Rowling.

Umberto Eco’s books deserve a much wider readership and appreciation, for the simple reason that they are brilliant. At once witty and deep, scholarly yet adventurous,  Eco’s delicious sense of pulp and high intellectual drama is peerless. His books are unique in this sense in that they are de facto works of philosophy that are also highly enjoyable and readable tales that can be read simply for their own pleasure.

The Name of the Rose was Eco’s debut novel, and that alone is saying something; I would rate this book better than most author’s entire oeuvre. Part thrilling murder mystery and defective story, part intellectual and academic meditation on the nature of scholarship and language and part coming-of-age story, The Name of the Rose is masterful on multiple layers. It can be read effortlessly as a medieval Sherlock Holmes story (one of the two leading characters is William of Baskerville) but it also works just as well as a philosophical demonstration of Eco’s day-job academic ideas, steeped in postmodernism and deconstructionism.

Set during the high middle ages, during the epic, centuries long clash between pope and emperor, this book even manages to mix in high political and cultural drama. The final confrontation between bad guy and good guy is both dramatic and intellectually stimulating and meaningful. Again, very few authors could possibly manage this. Eco’s books work very well on multiple levels.

This is top tier writing; a great example of the power and value of books and the written word over all other types of media.

 

A Game of Thrones

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HBO has a formula. One part shock value: violence, torture. One part sex: nudity, boobies, education. And one part of actually really great television: you know, that one scene every few episodes where an awesome character delivers and awesome monologue or your mind is blown by some epic twist. I used referred to it as “sexy history” a la The Tudors staring Johnathon Rhyes Myers. I could enjoy it, but once you’ve detected the pattern, it wears thin.

For some reason, I never quite saw HBO as a network that would go to the world of pure fantasy for their source material, but clearly it’s brilliant. You see: it’s just sexy history where the source material fits the HBO formula better than real history. How can Johnathon Rhyes Myers play a fat 50 year old man and still be sexy?

I watched Game of Thrones not really sure if I would like it. My wife will tell you I’m obsessed now, but I want to stand on saying that I very much enjoy Game of Thrones but step back from obsession. For me, Westworld takes that title.

The truth is that Donald Trump is president, and escapism – in the face of ecological destruction, American fascism and the death of the Great American Republic a very likely probability – is the order of the day. Game of Thrones is as good escape as any.

George R.R. Martin is a great writer because he knows very well he is not a great writer. He is a master borrower and adaptor. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros while distinctly different from European history, is at the same time reassuringly familiar: it’s a world that you immediately understand and know the rules too. The Dornish remind me of Moorish Spain; the Lannisters strike me as a little French. The Starks strike me as Scottish. Similarly, the religions of this universe parallel quite nicely with European paganism, Catholic Christianity and Islam. While no one to one comparison is ever possible (it’s not really Martin’s style to make social commentary, I would say), things fit together more or less they way then did in the middle ages. Martin’s fantasy has just the right amount of fantasy to be brilliant.

Here’s another example. Yes, there are dragons. And yes, there is magic. And yes, there might even be ice zombies. But they remain in the background to real human drama; they act more like props or symbols or metaphors. The dragons don’t talk; they are simply animals that happen to fly and breathe fire. Magic appears as illusion or religion or possibly chance; we are very far from Harry Potter. The ice zombies remain a terrible, possibly false myth; they add to the drama rather than being major plot points.

I was struck by how closely the television show follows the books. They really did a great job adapting it.

Final verdict: Game of Thrones is grade-A escapism.

Dear Tom Perez….

Congratulations on being elected to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

It’s very exciting to know that the mindset of myopia, hypocrisy, backroom dealings and ineptitude that lost the 2016 election to a reality TV star and snake-oil salesman named Donald Trump is still solidly in control of the Democratic Party. It’s a real honour to lead the most corrupt political party in American history: the party of machine politics and smoked-filled backrooms, Mayor Daley and Herbert Humphrey, and now the party of Hilary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and yourself. A smug insider elected by smug insiders that vividly, excruciatingly have no reason to be smug: that’s your situation right now.

Oh, I know that Hilary won the popular vote, but you have clearly not learned a lesson from the election. Nor have you and your backers any conception of what is happening to this country right now. The Democratic Brand embodied by the Clintons: neoliberalism, identity politics, wealthy behind the scenes donors, technocratic centrism loaded with platitudes about Hope and Change has actually just been torpedoed. You are captain of a sinking ship that just voted to tell it’s progressive base – and not for the first time in very recent memory – to go f*** itself. There is no other way to say it.

Thank you, Mr. Perez, for confirming to progressive voters that they are not at fault for Trump’s election. Thank you for confirming our suspicion that he Democrats are a corporate party, designed more to foil progressive politics then to represent them. Every time I start to feel any sort of loyalty or start to identify with the Democrats, somewhere behind the closed doors of the DNC, some sort of wedge issue emerges to reconfirm that the DNC is the Abbott to the GOP’s Costello. A few months ago, I thought between demographic changes and the fielding of Trump that the Democrats where going to be the party in power for the foreseeable future and the GOP was going to split into a sort of regional party and a libertarian party. Now I don’t even think we will see any real democracy ever again.

Thank you for freeing me from any sense of loyalty to Democrats. If this election has done anything good, it has revealed a lot of true stripes. For all the fake news and indefinably rigged primaries and elections, there is a decent chance that Americans will get to see exactly where things stand now. With this catastrophic loss to Trump, I thought that the Democrats would embrace progressive politics and lay the foundation for the millennial generation to really come to identify with  a major US political party. Well, that dream is done; perhaps  I was foolish and naive to think that was possible. Instead of fighting for democracy and choosing to represent and fight for an energised progressive base, you have opted to stay fiercely loyal to the very things that where rejected in this last election. Millennials – the largest and most highly educated generation – are seeking political representation and you have failed them again and again. Brilliant. The galling thing is that both your tactical moves and your strategic moves are not working…

Of course, that’s not your perspective. I know that your calculation is that progressives and millennials have no choice but to vote Democrat in 2018 and 2020, but if the results of the election suggest anything, they suggest that the American voter isn’t buying the (never very successful) Democratic model that Bill Clinton started. It’s all about money after all, isn’t it?  The progressive voter cannot be counted on to show up on voting day.

As a progressive voter, I’ve heard it all before. Sarah Silverman’s “You’re being ridiculous!” has come to define the party you now lead. I wish the Democrats were as effective as opposing Republicans as they where at foiling their own progressive wing of their party.

It’s not too late though Mr. Perez. We’re looking for leaders. Right now we have Bernie, but there is a hunger for leaders that voters can trust. Trump won because a big block of Americans felt they could trust him; they felt they represented their interests. I think they are stupid and dead wrong, but that is beside the point.

The majority of Americans want what ‘Merica wants. True representation.

You might try it sometime.

 

 

this is what fascism looks like

It has been one month since Trump became president. We have all been asking ourselves: “what is Donald Trump?” A populist? A fascist? Just what we need to shake things up? We as a society have not settled on what he is, what he really represents. And this might be his greatest strength; that potential of ‘normalisation’ already well under way.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is what fascism looks like. All the “fascism” alarms bells, klaxons, sirens, calendar event reminders and tocsins are going off right now. All of them. Every damn single last one.

Let’s be clear on what fascism is and what it is not. Because a part of the problem is that we have used the word “fascism” for so long as a catchall word meaning “very bad, angry/strict.”

Fascism is revolution in favour of authoritarianism. The strange marriage of angry populism and cynical conservative powers, this is a revolt against the idea of the public good, public reason and messy secular humanism. Fascism always makes use of the emotional appeal of a misunderstood, mythical past, even as it is itself something new and has nothing to do with the actual history of the nation. Fascism simultaneously captures the language of revolt and of change; it thus has a way of outflanking traditional political parties on both the right and the left.

This logically incoherent, internally contradictory appeal is the keynote sign of facscism. It “works” because, remember, fascism is revolt against civil society: it is an explosion of greed and selfishness, the triumph of the id, so to speak. As the saying going: “there is no contradiction in self interest.” Fascism is what happens when corporate greed hollows out a society, its individuals and institutions in the name of profit, and when things come to a breaking point where the path of the political body either points towards a move towards public good at the expense of corporate profit, or the destruction of civil society for the benefit of corporate profit. The resulting destruction of civil society and government based on public reason creates the appearance – in the case of Nazisim at least – of explosive growth and expansion. Because the resources of society are no longer being directed to the well-being of its individuals, it’s being completely directed into military expansion, corporate profit, and the gain of the handful of sychophants at the top. Fascism in this sense is extreme corporate cronyism with an expansive ideological cover.

All of these signs are present in Trump’s nascent regime. It all fits. Let me repeat that: it all fits the pattern. “Populism,” the tortured ideological term conservatives would prefer you to use for Trump, is drafted every time a demagogue sweeps onto the scene to take advantage of people’s anger. Don’t call it mob rule. At it’s best, populism expresses an almost marxist sense of lower class identity. Explain to me how Trump’s cabinet of billionaires is “populist” again?

Fascism is not true populism. Nor is it pure autocracy. It obviously contains huge doses of these things, but fascism is not about common people overthrowing some sort of oppressive regime, nor is fascism particularly strong at the top. It is not so much characterised by extreme centralised authority as competing factions of cronies and sycophants, who compete for the attention of the Leader. Fascism isn’t so much centralised and autocratic as a handful of powerful interests – in Nazi Germany’s case, the army, the bureaucracy, the SS and the major corporations – vying to expand their own power. The German government had ceased to exist in a de facto sense. Remember, Hitler wasn’t brilliant and his cronies and henchmen were even worse. They where crackpots, ranters, fanatics and madmen that political elites thought they could control and mould. Fascism is a wrecking; that turns a vibrant society into a barracks.

Recently, I have been reading the traditional Republican/conservative pushback on Donald Trump being as fascist: here are the best two articles. Barton Swaim’s “Trump’s populism isn’t fascism. So what is it?” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-populism-isnt-fascism-so-what-is-it/2017/02/16/d871df78-f20f-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.5db0621deea1&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 Swaim suggests that America exceptionalism – that our character as a nation renders us immune to fascism – and that if we where going to have gone fascist, it would have been in the ’30s and ’40s. Embracing the idea of American Exceptionalism, Swaim smugly announces that our society intrinsically resists the “centralisation of authority” that would happen under fascism. Further, fascism is “for elites, not mavericks or crackpots” and German society, including their version of liberal professors fell into line behind Hitler because German thought of itself as monolithic and was OK with being ruled by an aristocracy from Berlin. Again curious when your election is made possible by billionaires, the oil and coal industry, and FBI Director Comey. Fascism is when the “elites” and crackpots join forces.

Any complains liberals might have – like Bannon saying that the media should shut up – say more about delicate liberal sensitivities than about Trump’s ideology. Swains suggests that because he is able to disagree with Trump on anything (he airs slight disapproval of the Muslim Ban here) that means Trump is not a fascist. Swain then gets to his main course: Trump is a populist. A return to roots and basics. He’s the Salt of the Earth of American Democracy. Again, Trump lost the popular vote and “did not vote” was the winner of the election. After providing no evidence or explanation, merely a vague quote from Irving Kristol that echoes the Jefferson quote about the Tree of Liberty needing the blood of patriots except in this case populists, Swaim closes by saying the real problem is the conformism and complacency of America’s liberal elites.

Adopting the arm-chair-general superciliousness I’ve come to strongly associate with conservatives delivering an oversimplified, strangely convenient/cherry-picked version of history, Swaim claims that American ‘frontier spirit’ and general resistance to conformity means that authoritarianism of any stripe would be instantly halted before it even began. The funny thing about Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Swaim says, is that it fascism never took place in ’30s America. I cannot tell if Swaim makes his arguments out of cynicism and hypocrisy or naive ignorance, but he clearly has not read It Can’t Happen Here. The entire point of the book is to illustrate how easily it could “happen here” i.e., how easily “American exceptionalism” could be turned into a fascist program. If I was Swaim, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the book at all.

Further, Swaim seems blind that he is on the side of the forces of racial/religious conformism. America was explicitly founded on the idea of public reason and the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers refused to choose. Swaim implicitly thinks that American means “white and christian.” What this means in the modern age is fascism. Nor does he have any conception of how the ‘frontier spirit’ might work. When does it “kick in?” Swaim is also ignoring the realty of what the decades of the Cold War have done to our democratic society (talk about centralisation of power and conformity); his statement that “Americans have never gone for socialism” seems strange given FDR’s New Deal programs and the fact that American politics is currently heading off a cliff into right wing extremism. It implies Americans are immune to extremist politics just when that is exactly what is happening.

Ultimately for Swaim, nothing Donald Trump could ever do would count as fascist. And that is the real weakness in what he’s saying. Swaim’s rationale here indicates that that, hypothetically, Mike Pence’s “Patriotic Bible Camp for American Greatness” cannot be a  concentration camp because, well, it reflects our frontier spirit, and it chastises bleeding heart liberals (who are also secret totalitarians) and if it was fascist – which it definitely isn’t – Americans wouldn’t have it. “Frontier spirit” is great, but does Swaim realise that there is no frontier anymore?

Swaim’s basic argument rests on myths and  misconceptions about the American past and the actual nut-and-bolts of how are society functions today. Worse, he has no idea what fascism actually is. For him, the sum of the liberal argument is that Trump is a fascist because he is a bully, and Benito Mussolini was also a blustering bully. Swaim dismisses the comparison as facile. Fine. But he misses how Trump’s bullying fits a pattern that is repeating itself  here and now.

The second pattern of response is quite a lot more subtle and complicated. A great example is John McNeill’s “How fascist is Donald Trump? There’s a formula for that.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/21/how-fascist-is-donald-trump-theres-actually-a-formula-for-that/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e23796649cd4.

McNeill, a historian, grades Trump on his similarities with historical fascism in eleven categories, each category getting a possible four “benitos.” This is an interesting and charming read (on the category of ‘fetishisation of masculinity,’ four benitos are awarded) that dismisses Trump as a crude semi-fascist, a baby fascist (Trump scores a total of 22 benitos out of a possible 44). Fine. McNeill is clearly no friend of Trump, but his perspective tends to play down or even dismiss concerns about what is taking place now. Instead of indicating that we are serious danger of history repeating itself, and that our society and democracy are in dire peril, McNeill more or less leaves the impression that, like Swaim, Trump is like commercials during a movie: you don’t like them, but you sit through it anyway. McNeill contributes, in a small way, to the normalisation of Trump.

But what does it mean that a third of Americans slobber a semi-fascist and many more tolerate him? It strikes me that even a baby fascist should still trigger the “frontier spirit.” And even then, I would argue that the basic mechanics of fascism – populist rage allied with corporate and military interests destroying the basic tenets of the public good/civil society – clearly do not require a “high benito scoring” fascist dictator to be fascism. Remember we are talking about destruction here; you don’t have to be competent. 

Obviously Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump obviously isn’t Mussolini. But he does not have to be, and  American fascism – Trumpism – was never going to resemble the historical fascists. Really – just think about it. This is root-and-branch the essential reasoning behind the conservative mind-block on what’s happening to this country. Trump can’t be a fascist – the reasoning goes – because of the dazzling array of superficial differences between Trumpism and Nazism, Germany/Italy and America. For example, McNeill awards zero benitos in the categories of ‘fetishisation of youth’ and ‘hierarchical party structure/purging the disloyal,’ making much of the fact that his followers are not dressed up in ersatz military outfits and some Republicans dislike Trump and are not afraid to say so in public. So Republicans aren’t goose stepping around Washington DC in Davy Crockett outfits. Great. McNeill is blind to how militarised are society has become; requiring that fascism march in the street with matching outfits is laughable. Also, what about those little red hats?

NcNeill’s categories have nothing to do with what fascism actually is and how it actually operates. McNeill is implicitly assuming that Trumpism must fit snuggly into a mould that it simply doesn’t need in order to be fascist. McNeill is like the generals who “prepare for the last war” instead of looking to fight the next one. Again, neither McNeill nor Swaim look below the surface and look at what has happened to this country since WWII and the underlying economics, not to mention the state of our democracy (effectively gone). They are afraid to check underneath the hood: Trump doesn’t represent “frontier spirit” nor does Trumpism need to fit a blueprint of 1930’s European fascism for Trumpism to be fascism.

How long will these ostensibly reasonable, hard headed Republicans – fond of Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke – keep up their sham debate? How bad will it have to get? Look at their words and actions. Bannon’s statements about the media culminate to a calculated attempt to subvert democracy; Trump is moving full bore destroy any sort of function public system.

What exactly do you need to be more clear?