Poynter InstituteÂ senior scholarÂ Roy Peter Clark asks a provocative question in response toÂ
aboutÂ The End of America,Â the new bookÂ byÂ author Naomi Wolf — who hearsÂ boot heels and smells leather in contemporary America.
But inÂ his commentary Clark asks:
“Is America on the road to becoming a fascist state? If so, what should journalists do about it?”
Clark answersÂ “No” to the first questionÂ andÂ offers a general homily about skepticsm toward all political rhethoric in response to the second –Â great advice whichÂ I wishÂ the pressÂ would heed inÂ coverage ofÂ the “war on terror.”
But I digress.
ClarkÂ characterizes Wolf’s use of the f-wordÂ asÂ attention-getting hyperbole.Â Her polemic is so slanted, he says,Â it would only persuade “those who already believe.” In contrast he offersÂ the “more persuasiveÂ . . .Â argument ofÂ . . . Â Francis Fukuyama, who, in his book “America at the Crossroads,” argues against the abuses of the neoconservative movement he helped create.”
I have not read either book so I’m unable to compare or reviewÂ them. ButÂ as a journalist I feel obligedÂ to answer Clark’s two questions with a few obversations
What little I know about fascismÂ I learned at UC Berkeley where I majored in political scienceÂ from 1978 to 1980. During that time I read the bookÂ “Political Man” byÂ recently-deceased scholarÂ Seymour Martin Lipset. I have a copy in my garage asÂ a keepsake but the sectionÂ that isÂ aproposÂ I stillÂ remember afterÂ all the intervening years.
In his discussion ofÂ Hitler’s fascism, Lipset compared the election returnsÂ of 1928,Â when the Nazis did poorly,Â with those of 1932Â when they tookÂ power and burned the Reichstag.Â His analysisÂ showedÂ thatÂ it was the movement of liberal voters to the Nazi ticket that swung the election.Â At a time ofÂ economic desperation andÂ hyperinflation, liberals lost faith inÂ an impotent governmentÂ and endorsed Hitler’s extremistÂ policies. IÂ wonder about that in the context of our own times. Could a wave of foreclosures spark an economic crisisÂ and precipitateÂ a clamor for extreme solutions? Or another terrorist attack on the eve of national elections?
OfÂ course that is speculative,Â and Clark rightly tells journalists:
“Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling. Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.”
Clark’s remarks suggest that there’s no wayÂ America couldÂ slide into fascism because, well, it just wouldn’t be American, and I can’t argue with that. But let’s go back a little further in history, under the rubric of “Great Democracies Gone Bad” and checkÂ out the birthplace of democracy, the city state of Athens, andÂ why it fell into military and political decline, and tyranny about 2,400 years ago.
Obviously I wasn’t around at the time but the historian Thucydides left a wonderful contemporaryÂ account of the Athenian slide into fascism inÂ The Peloponnesian Wars. This taleÂ happens to be reasonably fresh in my mind asÂ I am homeschooling my 14-year-old son, Aeneas, in history and recently “tortured” him (his complaint, RoyÂ Peter Clark, and I agree here that hisÂ use of such inflated language does not make it so)Â by making him read and write about that war. To make a long story short, AthensÂ was thenÂ the world’s leading economic power, its leading naval power and the intellectual center of the world. To this day we revere the Athenians of that timeÂ for showing howÂ people could rule the state instead ofÂ vice versa.
But, as my son learned, the Athenians got greedy. TheyÂ became a democracy withÂ an empireÂ and, in order to keep that empire they, burned cities, slaughtered men, sold women into slavery andÂ invaded faraway places.Â
So the inventors of democracy also invented the abuses of democracy, and if I said earlier that the Athenians had slid into fascism technically that cannot possibly be true, since fascism isn’t invented until the 20th Century.
Nevertheless,Â after losing the Peloponnesian Wars, “democracy was replaced by the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants,” as About.com puts it.Â IfÂ theÂ United States is to freedom todayÂ what Athens was in its day,Â democracyÂ clearly doesÂ not inoculate a nation or its people against imperialism, greedÂ and perfidy.
Of course that was very long ago and I’d like to bring the discussion back to modernÂ times by quoting a saying attributed toÂ Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
ButÂ I learned a secretÂ at my father’s funeral that makes me believe it’sÂ hard to tell the good guys from the evil guys when it comes to figuring outÂ this fascism thing.
I live in California and when my dad died I flew back to Brooklyn for the funeral. Afterwards I met all of my dad’s old friends. They had grown up together during the Depression, Italian kids whose parents spoke little or no English. TheÂ best thing in their livesÂ was the Catholic Youth Organization baseball team.Â My sister TinaÂ sent me aÂ picture once of the whole crew of guys when they were aboutÂ 18. And there I was on the dayÂ we buried my dad,Â listening with moist eyes as theyÂ told me about playing ball together. I remember one of the guys said something to the effect of, “That Benny, he was some ball player.” All of aÂ sudden IÂ was not theÂ grieving son but the suspicious reporter. See, my name is “Tom Abate” and as aÂ childÂ everybodyÂ called meÂ “Baby Tommy” to distinguish me from my dad, “Big Tommy.”Â I caught my father’s pals looking guiltilyÂ at each otherÂ and made themÂ reveal the secretÂ he had taken to the grave.
My grandfather, who hadÂ came to America fromÂ NaplesÂ as a young man, wasÂ proud of the leader who seemed, during the 1920s and 1930sÂ Â toÂ have restoredÂ Italy’s greatness.Â Grandfather wasÂ so proud in factÂ that he named my father Benito Mussolini Abate. I had heard, growingÂ up as a kid, that my grandfather had had his gold fillings extracted and melted down and sent back to Italy. But such remarks were always with a laugh and I had discounted them. But that day I learnedÂ howÂ myÂ dad had gone into the Army toward the end of World War II, andÂ hadÂ eventually changed his name in humiliation. He chose Tom, I was told, hopingÂ toÂ appease my grandfather by taking the name of hisÂ first son, the eldest of the 13Â siblings in theÂ family,Â who had died long, longÂ before all of this occurred.
So I don’t know whether America is sliding toward fascism or what journalists should do if they thought it was. ButÂ I amÂ thankfulÂ that Roy Peter Clark dignified the question. AndÂ I’ll will say this:Â Â good people may not recognize the evil of their times. They may even help it in some small way, or be otherwise stained by it.Â That does not make them evil. But it doesÂ shame them to the end of their days.
P.S. The original blog was written in the wee hours and I have since corrected some grammatical errors and missing words without changing the meaning.