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Fascism is like herpes


June 19, 2013

Last month, we started exploring the concept of “fascism;” in fact, we barely scratched the surface. It’s a fascinating topic that one could explore for years, but my interest in the topic is more practical and immediate. Does fascism, in all its brutal and vicious glory, stand any chance of taking hold now, here, in America, and if so, is there anything we can do to prevent it?

To address such questions, I think I have found a useful metaphor.

Think of fascism as a disease—an abnormal condition that makes the “body politic” act in bizarre, unnatural and destructive ways. We may look at it, then, through the lenses of epidemiology and public health. How does it start? How does it spread? What are the conditions that encourage, or impede its development? And what kinds of ongoing measures can we take to avoid catching the disease in the first place?

So the answer to “Could America turn fascist?” is “Yes, of course, at any time.” Like herpes, the fascism “virus” is always present, lurking, just waiting for its chance to emerge. Our time is not really all that different from any other in this respect. Usually, the “immune system” of the social organism is sufficient to prevent its gaining a serious foothold. But when the organism is put under stress (as is certainly happening now in many countries), the virus can flourish and spread.

What is this “immune system?” It has many parts and operates at many levels. At the level of national governance, for example, we have organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others that work within the system to address many of the individual “symptoms” that commentators like Naomi Wolf have identified, such as restrictions on personal liberties, encroachment on privacy, and so on. Supporting the work of such organizations is an immensely valuable way to fight the development of fascism. A free, independent and alternative press is certainly part of this “immune system,” which is why people are rightly alarmed to see proto-fascists like the Koch brothers contemplating the takeover of major newspapers. America’s pluralistic and multicultural society is another preventive factor, countering the fascist impulse to enforce cultural uniformity and ideological purity. The struggles to reduce corporate power, revitalize local economies, combat racism and sexism, encourage cross-cultural interaction, and strengthen democracy are all part of this multi-pronged effort, though the individuals and organizations involved may not see themselves as explicitly “counter-fascist.”