One of the things about being a writer, perhaps obviously, is that I spend a lot of time working with words. I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’ve always enjoyed learning new ones and all their different shades of meaning and how you can use them to express exactly the right thing if you put them together right. I think that’s probably why I tend to find it slightly annoying when words get used incorrectly or imprecisely – words mean things, they convey specific meanings and communication can quickly become incomprehensible if we start using them wrong.
If you get me in the right (wrong?) mood I can go on about how the meaning of ‘tragedy’ – as deployed especially by the media – has strayed quite far from what the word used to mean (I think we have to accept this as a lost battle though). I am frequently dismayed at how almost no-one who uses the term ‘deus ex machina’ seems to have any idea what that actually means. Do not ever get me started on the uses of the word ‘medieval’.
Most of the time this is, in the grand scheme of things, not very important (and arguably just me being a grumpy old pedant) and people get by just fine even if they’re not using the word ‘literally’ completely wrong. Sometimes it really does matter, though. I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend sent me a video put together by Neil Gaiman about the current refugee crisis, about the difference between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘migrant’, and why it is important. The argument is itself an important one, and probably the best thing is just if you go watch the video yourself, if you haven’t.
Of course the more important thing is that we then all try to be kind in our responses and reactions to the plight of these people as they seek somewhere safe to live. I’m pleased that Canada is trying to help.
I guess maybe it also primed me to think about another word that often gets used, shall we say imprecisely, in conversation and in the media – that word is ‘fascism’. I guess we tend to throw that on anything vaguely authoritarian that we don’t like, and certainly any use of force by authority tends (with varying degrees of justification) to attract the fascist label. It’s a word that is much in the media as I write this this morning, but this time (perhaps deliberately, and perhaps not) it is being used correctly.
I am referring of course to Donald Trump. He’s being called a fascist, and for whatever it may be worth I want to add my voice to those pointing out that this isn’t sophistry or hyperbole. His policies really, truly are fascist. It’s important, I think, to say this, to shine that light on what he’s doing, and make it clear that this is what he’s offering to his followers. It’s frightening to watch unfold.
How is Trump fascist? I suspect there’s a very long analysis that could be done. But briefly, if you go through the speeches he’s making, he ticks all the basic checkboxes of the fascist message. ‘Make America Great Again’ is the classic appeal to the golden past of a chosen people who have fallen on hard times in the present. For Mussolini it was the Roman Empire, for Trump I suspect it’s the 1950s. Of course their decline is not their fault – these chosen people have been undermined and sabotaged by enemies; for Trump, these are immigrants and now especially Muslims. But he can fix it, and part of fixing it means excluding those who are not in the chosen few, by closing the borders, by marking out who does and doesn’t belong and restricting the rights of those who are ‘other’. To begin with.
Last night Trump’s campaign manager made a favorable comparison between his candidate’s policies and the decision to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, a decision (I had thought) was universally decried as unfair, unjust, and racist, and for which the American (and indeed the Canadian) governments have since apologised. But it shows where Trump’s thinking is apparently going. This morning I see he is also ridiculing the idea of ‘free speech’ as something important as he calls for ‘closing up the internet’ (as goofy an idea as that sounds) to control what people can read and say. If it wasn’t for the clumsy way he says some of these things (a clumsiness that I now suspect is probably calculated), this would be chilling. According to Trump, if you value freedom of speech, you are ‘foolish’. Again, right from elementary fascism – individual rights mean nothing, the interests of the state mean everything.
Fascism is probably the most destructive ideology human society has yet created. It led to probably the most enormous crime against humanity we have ever seen, in the Holocaust. This was the ideology that the world united against in the Second World War. The ‘Greatest Generation’ that contemporary society currently praises went off to fight precisely against that evil. The threat of fascism was seen as sufficiently awful that Churchill and Roosevelt were prepared to ally with Stalin (himself a terrible figure) so that it might be defeated. The fight against fascism is one that we (rightly, to at least some extent) lionize in the stories we tell to this day, and that we honour on Remembrance Day.
When I have taught about fascism in my history classes, my students typically have trouble understanding how it took hold, and how people (very many of them) could line up behind its ideas of division and hate and endless conflict. And yet here it is again, and if the poll numbers from the United States are to be believed (and I think at this stage we have to give them at least some credence) it is working once again. That’s the most frightening part. I think the Marxist-Leninist candidate in my riding got about 14 votes in the last election, but in one of the countries that led the fight against fascism the last time around, a very nearly explicitly fascist candidate is not only far from marginal, but seems to be thriving.
I think it’s time that everyone who can, speaks out and makes it clear that this is not okay and that the societies we have build won’t tolerate this. We can’t. The cost is simply too high. I’m glad to see many Republican candidates directly and unequivocally rejecting Trump and his ideas, although it would also be good if they would say that they won’t support him should he win the nomination. It’s alarming that some have not.
There’s already a lot of damage that has probably been done; it’s been pointed out that the Trump candidacy has done a lot to normalize the use of racist arguments as ‘tough talk’ or ‘straight talk’ that would probably have been political suicide just a few months ago. There’s much worse that can come if these ideas are allowed to continue to grow. I’m not sure how much I can really do, but I’m going to do what I can. I’m not an American, but I’m a human being, and I can’t stay silent on this.
I know you don’t come here for my political ideas and I promise this is not going to become a political blog. In most cases, there are people who write on politics and social issues much more eloquently and effectively than I will ever do. I think, though, that this particular issue is important on a scale that goes beyond most political issues, and thus today’s blog. I’ll be back to writing about books and things next week.
Thanks for reading. Don’t let this go unchallenged, please.