Triumph of the Will: the Sequel

I would like to sketch out why I believe it is appropriate to start using the “F” word to describe what is happening in US politics. I don’t mean the “F” word that consists in four letters and, so I’ve been given to know, is not fit to appear even in the pages of this far-from-prudish newsletter. I mean the one that captures the important respects in which George W. Bush and his handlers differ from business-as-usual, establishment conservatives, from the Nixons and Reagans and Thatchers of history. To wit, “Fascism”.

Though this may seem a pure oxymoron in North America, in England left-wing tabloids are part of the landscape. As has been well reported since November 3, one of these, the Daily Mirror, ran a banner headline following Bush’s victory asking how so many millions of Americans could have been so “dumb”. Hard-hitting as this may have been, it seems to me to have been a bit off the mark. “Irrational” would have been more polite, and more accurate. A vote for Bush was irrational in the literal sense of the term: it went against the self-interest of the vast majority of Americans with respect to financial well-being, as well as the kind of well-being supposedly seen to by the Department of Homeland Security.

It has been said often enough in the past year or so that to vote for Bush is to behave irrationally. What has not been emphasized forcefully enough is that there are objective standards by which this can be determined. Voting for Bush is irrational in a way that could be determined by, say, an ideally impartial Martian observer who knew nothing but the definition of the word “irrational” and a few of the relevant details concerning the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies. As long as we fail to recognize irrationality for what it is –a hard-nosed, decision-theoretic category, and not a moral judgement, let alone an insult– we will be unable to make any progress towards understanding how it is that one half of our countrymen, and over half of our country’s voters,have by all appearances been invaded by body-snatchers. I take it for granted that such understanding must come before change.

Why do people vote against their own interest? Is it because they do not know what their interest is? Certainly, to say that the media could do a better job is a gross understatement. I have a little anecdote that I think captures how dismally our media fail to fulfill their traditional task of informing citizens about issues of consequence, in order that they might be able to make reasoned judgments. Almost every weekday, I eat lunch at a wonderful, dirt-cheap Lebanese restaurant in downtown Montreal called Al Taib (I am an American who lives in Canada). It consists in two floors. Downstairs, there is a television blaring Al Jazeera; upstairs, there is another, locked on CNN. When I order my food on the first floor, invariably I catch glimpses of Baghdad and the West Bank, interspersed with talking heads who –though I have no idea what they’re actually saying– by the duration of the camera shots I am confident are speaking in long, full, reasoned sentences rather than staccato, Crossfire-style eructations.

For the last two weeks, when I’ve gone upstairs to eat, what I’ve found has been something quite different from the first-floor fare: live, special- reporting from the Redwood City courthouse hosting the trial of a certain Scott Peterson, a murderer distinguished, as far as I can tell, only by the fact that bored housewives find him and his dearly departed attractive in a way familiar to them from the soap operas they might just as well be watching. The Peterson trial is a story of absolutely no consequence for anything going on in the world. It is simply unreasonable to expect Americans to come through as an informed, judicious citizenry when the purported sources of information about what’s going on focus, as CNN does, on nothing.

To be sure, the inconsequential soap opera on CNN is occasionally interrupted, but for the most part only by the “results” of inane polls soliciting responses to meaningless questions. Often the questions concern “values”, and the illusion is thereby generated that values are an “issue.” A century from now, I am confident that the frequent invocation of values by the 54 million, the pliant media, and their political manipulators, will be something some as-yet unborn historian will find himself at great pains to explain. To speak with the philosophers of language, this term, “values”, does not denote. It only captures a sentiment.

While on the subject of values, it is worth pointing out that there has been quite a variety of opinions throughout the history of the Church as to what should count as a truly Christian value in the domain of sexual practice. Focus on the Family’s Reverend Dobson and others act as though it’s been an established fact all along that dividing up into monogamous, lifelong partnerships is the only obvious choice for the good Christian. In fact, many Christians throughout history would see even this amount of sexual license as excessive. Augustine tolerated sex in marriage, but just barely. In the Gospels we are instructed to stay married if we already happen to be, but, since the end is nigh, not to bother if we aren’t yet. The third- century Patristic Greek author Origen thought he knew what a true Christian should do about his sexuality: he sliced off his own testicles in the hopes that he would thereby be better able to focus his love and longing on a more worthy object. I personally think this would be a fine course of action for the Reverend Dobson and his followers as well. What could be more truly Christian than a gesture of such infinite charity, whereby we decent, secular, rational folk are spared any more Dobson spawn?

Anyway, the total failure of the mass media clearly isn’t the whole problem. If CNN were doing its job, our wayward 54 million would just perceive the most trusted name in news as they now do the New York Times, and take their business elsewhere. And this is why critics such as Slavoj Zizek are right to point out that the situation is much more dire than someone like Noam Chomsky is able to see. It’s not just a matter of getting the facts out there. The facts are out there. I would even venture that the 54 million who voted for Bush know the facts. The political developments in the US in the past four years are radical, as opposed to conservative, precisely because the people responsible for what is happening, voters as well as politicians, see the superiority of their position as consisting in a willful rejection of the merely factual in favor of the sublime ideal. Radical self-assertion in the absence of reasons is taken as the only true sign of national greatness. Greatness is proven by the transformation of the world through force of will, rather than reasoned response to existing conditions.

Credit needs to be given to Ron Suskind of the New York Times for extracting the purest statement of the administration’s radicalism, from an anonymous Bush aide. Suskind was accused by the aide of living “in what we call the reality-based community”, which he described as composed of people who “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” Bush’s United States, in contrast, are “an empire now” and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. “We’re history’s actors”, the anonymous aide concluded, “and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Willful irrationality can be a beautiful thing in certain domains of life. Falling in love, for example, with someone whom our parents or our society deems unfit or not up to snuff can be an important way of establishing personal autonomy. In the spiritual domain, to assert an ungrounded personal closeness to God, as did Kierkegaard, in a world that obsessively demands reasons for everything can be seen as a great strength. But in the political sphere, reasons are always good. The Bush administration’s radicalism consists in its abandonment of any real commitment to producing these.

“Fascist”, like “irrational”, is often thrown around as an epithet. But when used properly it is also a useful and meaningful conceptual tool for the analysis of political phenomena. The total rejection of pragmatic considerations from the political sphere in favor of the radical self- assertion of what is thought to be an authentic national culture, the mutation of fear into hatred of vaguely defined enemies, and the aestheticization of politics to the point where arguments are seen as cowardly and dull and only gestures count: this is just what fascism is.

To point out that Karl Rove has been charged with substantially the same task as was Leni Riefenstahl in the mid-1930s –namely, aestheticizing the power grabs of their respective leaders in order to make these look like the manifestation of the people’s will and fortitude– is not to smear. I would even go so far as to say it’s not to state an opinion. It is to utter a patent truth, one that a century from now (if, God willing, the end is not nigh) our imagined historian will take to be among the most non- controversial.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. He can be reached at: