Dusting Off the Political F-Word

Its use is shunned in polite company. It coarsens political discourse. Its introduction into conversation raises hackles and stirs emotions. It carries so much connotative baggage that its denotative significance is often totally eclipsed. It is a verbal bomb-thrower's delight: a virtual slap in the face, a dismissive epithet, the ultimate insult, shorthand for "You're a bad person and beneath contempt." I refer, of course, to the political F-word: "fascist." 

In high school, I dutifully learned that Mussolini's Fascist party controlled Italy in World War II, but that Fascist Italy's allies -- Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan -- were fascistic in nature, too. That is, they were undemocratic, intolerant, and tyrannical. They were so filled with their own self-righteousness and arrogance that they had no compunction about brutally suppressing what they viewed as the inferior humans who disagreed with them.

In high school, we learned that "fascism" was a "right-wing" ideology. Then I had an epiphany at Oxford University in 1974. A Conservative Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, was scheduled to give a speech. I was just beginning to grow out of my youthful flirtation with socialism, so I was curious to hear this man's unfamiliar defense of free markets. 

Regrettably, due to a conflict, I wasn't able to attend, so instead I eagerly awaited the arrival of the morning paper to read about Powell's speech. When the paper came, I read that Powell had been prevented from giving his speech by students who drowned out his voice with shouts of "fascist, fascist!" until he finally gave up and departed. 

The proverbial light bulb lit up in my head.  The real fascists in this drama were the leftists/socialists who censored free speech. That's when I came to understand that fascism, with all its bullying and suppression of individual liberties, was a left-wing phenomenon.

I later learned from reading Solzhenitsyn that "fascist" first became a pejorative term in the Soviet Union. Communists branded everyone a "fascist" who wasn't one hundred percent supportive of Comrade Stalin's plan for global socialism under the control of the Soviet Communist party. 

This led to such absurdities as lumping together such champions of individual rights and liberties as Reagan and Thatcher with the Hitlers and Mussolinis who trampled individual rights and liberties, and whose policies were far more similar to Stalin's than to Reagan's and Thatcher's. In a way, the word "fascist" was ripe for this kind of sloppy usage, because fascism, unlike socialism, was never a complete, coherent political philosophy. That made it easier to co-opt the term as a catch-all of condemnation.

If the word "fascist" had any widely accepted lexicographical instead of emotive meaning, it would be an apt term today. The same self-righteous attitude that induced those Oxford students to suppress Enoch Powell's right to free speech is all around us today. 

The "communications czar" has complained that private media companies almost thwarted the Chávez revolution in Venezuela, and now he threatens to impose punitive fees on radio stations that broadcast conservative talk shows. 

Union activists and their political allies want to deprive workers of secret ballots in union certification elections.

Leftists, despite dominating Hollywood, television, and the national print media, desire a so-called "Fairness Doctrine" to cripple conservative talk radio, the one medium they don't dominate.

Voter fraud has become a national sport as partisans feel so entitled to govern that they fabricate voter registrations; make it easy for felons, dead people, and illegal aliens to vote; scorn the democratic principle of "one man, one vote"; and are supported by an attorney general who won't let states enforce identification requirement to prove eligibility to vote.

Bills are rammed through Congress before they can be read, making a mockery of "representative government." Steve Forbes has accused congressmen of waging "a campaign of harassment and intimidation" against health insurance companies in an attempt "to silence all voices opposed to their government-run health care proposals."

The science czar is on record as stating that compulsory abortion is permissible under our constitution.

In the government takeovers of GM and Chrysler, government trampled long-established contract and bankruptcy laws when they ripped off secured bondholders.

Partisan zealots advocate "truth commissions" as a prelude to criminal prosecution of policy disagreements.

Earlier this year, senate inquisitors conducted show trials of corporate CEOs -- "Raise your hand on the television camera if you use your bank's jet for transportation."   

A pay czar has dictated compensation limits for executives in privately owned companies.     

The Speaker of the House longs to "take an inventory" of every aspect of our lives under the pretext of human-caused climate change.

A couple of months ago, the House voted to authorize five-year prison sentences for citizens who resist purchasing health insurance. (How many muggers and thieves serve shorter sentences for their crimes?)

All these things seem fascistic in tenor and tendency. I have reservations, though, about invoking the inflammatory political F-word. Due to its repeated misuse over the decades, classifying policies as "fascist" today is likely to be interpreted as petty name-calling (as opposed to serious, objective criticism). Let us, then, give the term "fascism" a decent burial and leave it in the past. 

Government policies either protect or suppress liberty. All anti-liberty ideologies and movements -- communism, socialism, fascism, progressivism, environmentalism, and Orwellian, misnamed "liberalism" -- are opposed to liberty; therefore, they are literally illiberal. We don't need the F-word to sound the warning: Beware! Illiberalism is on the march.

Mark W. Hendrickson, Ph.D. teaches economics at Grove City College and is a Fellow for Economic & Social Policy at the Center for Vision & Values.
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