Friday, October 10, 2008

Palin Rallies Ignite Widespread Talk of 'Fascism'

By Jeffrey Feldman

Because I published a book recently on the harm done to U.S. democracy by violent rhetoric, I get lots of calls for comment on whichever right-wing shock jock uttered the most menacing words on air in any given week. Lately, however, those questions have shifted in a very noticeable way. Whereas the public concern used to be focused on violent terms and phrases used in broadcast media, nowadays all the talk is about Sarah Palin's speeches and fear of 'fascism.' And even if 'fascist' is not a very accurate description of Sarah Palin -- neither sociologically nor historically -- public concern in response to her campaign events is a social fact well worth noting, if only for the sheer scale of it.

Palin Events Evoke Image of 'Rallies' Seen in History Museums
The most common point brought to my attention in this new concern for Palin is that her events remind people of the kind of 'rallies' people have seen in old newsreels and exhibition photographs in history museums about the fascist period.

Many people have said to me, in so many words, 'I went to a Holocaust museum, recently, and the kinds of rallies they had in the 1930s are exactly what we are seeing now at these Palin events.'

What is it that makes people see events from 1930s Europe and Sarah Palin's campaign stops in Florida (e.g.) as similar? People repeatedly mention three things:

(1) Palin's claim that Sen. Obama has covert ties to 'domestic terrorism'
(2) Palin's claim that Sen. Obama wants to see the U.S. military defeated in war
(3) Shouts from attendees calling for physical harm against Sen. Obama

Interestingly, I have heard these observations from Democrats and Republicans. The logic is that it is not just one feature of the Palin events that leads people see them as 'rallies' of the sort they have learned about in history museums, but three elements combining together: claims of Obama's covert terrorist ties and desire to see the military fail, combined with voiced calls for harm to Sen. Obama.

Palin Events Elicit Talk of Attendee 'Mentality''
After talk of historical references, the most common concern I hear is about the 'mentality' or 'psychology' of the attendees at Palin events. When put to me, the question is often phrased as:

Is there some reason why the people at these events -- and not other people -- are susceptible to the kind of political rhetoric Palin uses?

The psychology questions are most often posed in response to several observations made about the attendees:

(1) Since Sen. Obama has no ties to terrorism, why do some people believe it?
(2) Why are these people susceptible to right-wing propaganda while other people are not?
(3) Why do people continue to accept the 'terrorism' and 'treason' smears even when presented with facts about Sen. Obama?

Nobody who has presented me with these questions has claimed any kind of expertise in psychological theory. Rather, they seem to be looking for a scientific sounding answer for what they observe as an irrational 'anger' at Palin rallies and, in general, a 'mentality' departing from 'normal.'

We find these same kinds of questions about 'anger' and 'mentality' in the writings from observers of the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s -- such as Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. What I hear in these questions about the 'mentality' of the Palin attendees is not a return to social psychological theories of the postwar period, but a voiced concern for what people view as behavior in the public sphere that strikes them as a departure from normal, healthy behavior...


Palin rallies are like European 'skinhead' events. What a nutty moment in history.

It'll be interesting to see what happens when we have a president & justice dept NOT sympathetic to the wacko element.


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