Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What's a Fascist?

The media has discovered that Republicans, too, use the word "fascism."

Fascism, in fact, seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans in an election season dominated by an unpopular war in Iraq.

Yes, that's how the AP reports the news these days.

This discovery has led to predictable debates over whether "fascism" is the right word here or not. And of course there's no answer, since it's a word invented by humans for a human political condition. Not like "oak tree" or something where you can define it by genetics or taxonomy.

To some people, fascism can only be right-wing, and thus oriented in politics. It certainly is a conservative quality, but I think that limitation is too severe. To be very strict, it would have to be limited to the movement started by Benito Mussolini in 1919 and only could be Italian. The best definition I've found is in Robert O. Paxton's book "The Anatomy of Fascism" [published in 2004]:

"A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

That all seems to fit the Islamist program, so far as I can understand it, to a "T." The only missing element, perhaps, is the part about "abandons democratic liberties," because in the culture in which this movement flourishes there are few if any such to be abandoned.

The word fascist first appeared in English in 1921, in reference to the Italian partito nazionale fascista, the anti-communist political movement organized under Mussolini. The word thus comes from Italian fascio "group, association," literally "bundle." Fasci "groups of men organized for political purposes" had been a feature of Sicily since c.1895; the 20th century sense probably was influenced by the Roman fasces which became the party symbol of Mussolini's group.

Latin fasces "bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting" was the object carried before a lictor, a superior Roman magistrate, as a symbol of power over life and limb: the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe head execution by beheading.

The word has few relatives outside Latin (and Italian); among them seem to be Middle Irish basc "neckband," Welsh baich "load, burden," and Old English bæst "inner bark of the linden tree," which is connected to Modern English bast. Perhaps the oddest relation is faggot "bundle of twigs bound up," which contributed to the slang faggot "male homosexual," though not via the "burned at the stake" Internet urban legend.