Sunday, August 29, 2010

Specters of Beck

In 1946 the distinguished African American religious writer Howard Thurman wrote an interesting (and somewhat uncharacteristically political) essay, “The Fascist Masquerade.” He was worried about the revival and extension of a native American fascism. This was a very common worry at the time among progressives. Vice President Henry Wallace, writing in the New York Times in 1944, wrote that a “fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” With “several million Fascists in the United States,” Wallace claimed that one of the great challenges to face the United States after the war will be the fight against fascism “within the United States itself.” Thurman was broadly sympathetic to this perspective, and in his article, he pointed to several characteristics of an incipient American fascism, which was “committed to a fundamental inequality among men,” including a stalwart defense of Jim Crow, opposition to the rights of labor, a conservative Christianity, all wrapped in the mantle of an aggressive patriotism. Thurman identified certain organizations as manifesting these traits, including the revived Ku Klux Klan. They were pseudo-populist organizations, which had their support and sustenance from mid-sized and often large sized businesses who saw these reactionary groups as supporting and helping to institute their broader agenda. And these front organizations were useful in disseminating and obscuring the real source of this crypto-fascism. “Watch for the signs [of fascism] in your community,” Thurman cautions, “ whatever may be the banner or masquerade.”
This concern with fascism, and fascist subversion in the mid to late 1940s has sometimes been labeled the “brown scare,” an ironic precursor to the red scare, the irony being that many of those who were most concerned about fascist subversion, like Henry Wallace, found themselves subject to accusations of subversion themselves. If anything, the episode is a good reminder not to be too eager to make accusations of subversion. But Thurman was definitely correct that the Klan, and later the White Citizens Councils, were main bulwarks in the fight to retain segregation, and the “right to work laws” pushed by many of the groups he discusses played a major role in retarding the cause of labor in the post-war period.
So, is Glenn Beck a fascist? Was Glenn Gould a hypochondriac? Was Glen Miller ever not in the mood? This is a serious question, and Frank Rich in the Times this morning amasses evidence, quite similar to that assembled by Thurman and Wallace, to argue that Beck is in the end a self-promoting puppet for a vast right wing conspiracy. The answer to the question of Beck’s fascism is less important than posing it, and the need to be alert to the forces of reaction, which continue to be, even in the era of Obama, more resourceful and tenacious, it would seem, than anything the good guys can muster. Much has been made of the symbolism of the Beck rally on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The tragedy of America since 1963 is that in many ways it is a far better, and far more egalitarian society in some ways; and far worse and less equal in others. Whether or not Glenn Beck is masquerading as a fascist is for the reader to decide; what seems beyond doubt is that he has become perhaps the leading spokesperson for what might be called the “new inequality.”

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