Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Time to retire the ‘N’ word

It’s past time to stop using the “N” word.

No, not that one. That one has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed out of our public discourse — and even from the youth version of Huckleberry Finn.

I’m talking about the other insidious “N” word, the one that gets thrown around in politics all the time, by left and right. You know the one: Bush is a Nazi; Obama is a Nazi, blah, blah, blah. It’s become nothing more than a playground insult, unconnected to any real understanding of who the Nazis really were, what National Socialism actually was.

That’s an insult to the memory of the millions of victims of National Socialism. It also obscures any serious inquiry into the nature of its evil. Like the boy who cried wolf, the constant playing of the Nazi card ultimately dulls our sensibilities when actual totalitarian impulses might be identified.

Early in the Iraq war, I listened to an interview the the great World War II historian John Lukacs (“Five Days in London, May 1940;” “The Last European War, September 1939-December 1941”). A caller made a comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler and between George Bush and Winston Churchill. In his very gentlemanly way, Lukacs pointed out that Saddam, while an evil tyrant, was no Hitler, and the threat of his fourth-rate military could not be compared to that of the Wehrmacht, c. 1940. Nor could the position of the United States — as the most powerful military force in the history of the world — be compared to that of a beleaguered Britain.

This was clearly lost on the caller, who just wanted his simplistic morality play.

Even serious analysis is tainted by the desire to score contemporary political points.

Lew Rockwell, Jr.’s 2004 essay “Red State Fascism” was widely touted during the Bush years, often by the left, even though Rockwell is a libertarian. (The “F” word should be held suspect, too). Rockwell’s essay pointed out all the signs of creeping fascism on the right, turning from the libertarian principles of the antigovernment electoral uprising of 1994 toward an authoritarian statism in the Bush era. He wasn’t wrong; there was that kind of shift. But the Tea Party is evidence of a swing of the pendulum back toward cranky libertarianism — so how does that fit the model?

Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” (self-explanatory, right?) is beloved on the right and excoriated on the left. It’s actually a pretty interesting book, despite its polarizing title, cover and hype. But Goldberg has to hedge on his own thesis. See the following from a Salon.com interview:

What I thought was interesting about your definition of fascism was that nationalism seemed to be missing ... Stanley Payne, whom you quote and say is "considered by many to be the leading living scholar of fascism," in his definition of fascism, the first thing he says is that it's "a form of revolutionary ultra-nationalism." How does that fit with contemporary liberalism, which is often derided as being unpatriotic, anti-American?

That's a perfectly legitimate question. I think classical fascism, the fascism that we all think of when we hear the word "fascism" -- Italy, Germany and to a certain extent Spain, they were ultra-nationalistic, I don't dispute that, I think that is absolutely the case. I just would want to emphasize that that ultra-nationalism comes with an economic program of socialism. There's no such thing as a society undergoing a bout of ultra-nationalism that remains a liberal free-market economy. The two things go together.

I don't say that contemporary liberalism is the direct heir of Nazism or Italian fascism. I say it's informed by it. It's like its grandniece. It's related, they're in the same family, they share a lot of genetic traits, but they're not the same thing.

OK. It’s got four legs, a tail and a nose. Is it an elephant or a Chihuahua?

An arm’s length list of “yeah, but...” qualifications doesn’t make for good sound bytes. So by the time interesting but limited ideas like Rockwell’s and Goldberg’s hit the mainstream, we end up with labels and fatuous comparisons that create heat but no light.

Maybe by dropping the easy buzzwords, we'll have to come up with more accurate and useful ways of making our arguments. Voluntarily of course. Forcing people to stop using words would be fascist.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Telling us that we can't use the "N" word makes you a Nazi Fascist like Hitler. :D

  2. Nuanced discussion of political topics that is respectful of the opposing point of view and doesn't degenerate into partisan, inflamitory name-calling? How unAmerican of you, Jim! Without the above, how would Fox News peddle their propiganda?

  3. Blame it on Seinfeld that the "N" word became so mainstream and casual. "No soup for you!" I find it interesting the a Jewish comedian would include a Soup Nazi character in his show.