Tolerance of intolerance is insanity

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In the 1990s a close friend of mine described to me a political debate he attended as ‘low wattage’. It was his shorthand for describing dim-witted people resorting to clichés and irrational arguments. People talking words of the kind excoriated by George Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ as strips of prefabricated and meaningless phrases stitched together by ‘sheer humbug’, mostly to defend the indefensible by way of opaque euphemisms.

Euphemisms like today’s talk of ‘mainstream media’ to legitimize the plutocrat propaganda peddled by News Corp and the other major players in Australia, or ‘centre left’ to lie about the ALP being a conservative party, or ‘centre right’ to avoid having to acknowledge burgeoning right wing extremism in the Coalition parties.

Little did my now deceased friend know that an historically parallel decline of education, the rise of social media, and Rupert Murdoch’s conversion of journalism into propaganda would turn all political debate into a low-wattage closed circuit.

Unfortunately for us all, this means that ignorance and narcissism are now driving a revival of all the worst totalitarian tendencies of the 20th century, sometimes more as Millennial amusements and fashion accessories of faux political and social commitments than serious political engagements. Nevertheless, some of this pretentious panto plays out in the machinations of political parties, and, worse, in our cultural, economic, and social institutions.

We get it in the form of neo-Stalinism, often posing as social conscience, but mainly aimed at the armchair sport of social media mob lynchings, or ‘cancellations’, of people who have transgressed some unwritten rule of political correctness.

We get it as neo-fascism too, sometimes allied with religious right cults, and collectively posing as ‘traditional conservatism’, but rarely rising above the old-style chauvinism of seeking to maintain white, male, chauvinist privilege, and making sure everyone who isn’t that kind of numbskull knows their damned place.

How did we come to a situation in which such political extremes are once more peddled so openly in Western societies with so little opposition?

The Overton Window

Thom Hartman, writing for Salon, offered a potted history of how a bunch of American billionaires seeking to avoid paying taxes, complying with regulation of their enterprises, and seeking to dismantle labour union influence, deliberately set about turning the Republican Party in the USA into a destroyer of liberal democracy.

Thom Hartman.

Part of that agenda involved using ‘think tanks’ to generate an endless stream of extremist ideas, pushing these out to the media, and getting allies there to discuss them as if they were serious policy positions, to shift public perceptions about what is ‘normal’ political opinion.

Although this activity has been going on since the 1970s, in the 1990s an employee of the libertarian think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, Joseph Overton, openly solicited potential sponsors by arguing the return on their investment would be that his organization would generate radical right wing ideas, and disseminate them to media, with the stated aim of forcing a public debate that would acclimatize voters to accept as mainstream even quite bizarre ideas, just by being exposed to them repetitively. The Joseph Goebbels strategy of telling lies often enough for them to sound like truth.

This deliberate shifting of public perception has come to be called the Overton Window, referring to the set of ideas in the public sphere regarded as ‘acceptable’ at any one time.

Rupert Murdoch, who famously broke media union power in the UK during the Thatcher era, is an enthusiastic think tank patron, and lent his media assets to the propagation of ever more extreme political ideas, not least of which are the many bizarre conspiracy theories linked to the Trump presidency. In Australia, Murdoch is a principal patron of the extreme right wing Institute of Public Affairs, and of course, proprietor of the News Corporation propaganda machine, always critical of Labor, and always supportive of the Coalition parties, urging the latter on to become ever more the populist fascist movement he thinks will best advance his interests, especially through his Sky News television channel, which employs some of the most vociferous advocates of neo-fascism anywhere in the world today.

Another aspect of the campaign in America to turn the Republican Party into wreckers of liberal democracy has been the recruitment of what’s come to be known as the ‘religious right’.

Christofascism

Hartman argued that it was not enough for the Republicans to skew political debate and stack public offices with right wing stooges. To win elections they also needed the support of vocal religionists.

They needed a larger bullhorn, a way of reaching into the lives of additional tens of millions of American voters who really didn’t much care about … issues.

That’s where Jerry Falwell and his friends came into the picture.

Falwell was an inveterate grifter, hustling Jesus to build a multimillion-dollar empire while ignoring Jesus’ teachings about humility, poverty and the need to care for others. A new, muscular Jesus — a Jesus who endorsed assault weapons and private jets for preachers — came to dominate much of America’s Protestant Christianity.

This Jesus wanted you to get rich — riches, they said, are a sign of God’s blessing — and the “prosperity gospel” and all its perverted cousins were being preached on TV and in megachurches across the nation throughout the 1980s.

Reagan brought [in] his vice president’s son — a young drunk named George W. Bush who got sober with Jesus’ help (and a threat from his parents and wife) — and Bush forged an alliance between the Reagan campaign and the then-emerging phenomenon of Falwell/Bakker/Graham/Robertson televangelists.

The televangelists became multimillionaires, churches openly defied IRS regulations and preached politics from the pulpit, and millions of mostly non-political churchgoers were suddenly evangelists not just for Jesus but also for the Republican Party.

With this dramatically expanded base of voters, Republican politicians went on a 40-year spree of cutting taxes, deregulating polluting industries, hustling guns and busting unions.

To keep the rubes coming to the churches where they’d hear that GOP message, Republicans on the Supreme Court had to throw them the occasional bone. Giving bakers the right to tell gay people wanting a wedding cake to screw off was one of them, setting up the “religious right” of pharmacists to refuse to sell condoms.

Churches kept getting richer and Republicans kept getting elected, but most people didn’t realize the symbiosis at work.

It could be argued that this created a self-perpetuating cycle of radicalization, turning the religious right into a vicious kind of Christofascism.

The term ‘Christofascism’ was initially coined by German theologian Dorothee Sölle in 1970 to describe the attempt by some Catholic clergy to use Christian doctrine as a means of fascist political and social control.

However, since the 1970s, the rubric has acquired ominous new meanings in the USA and elsewhere, for forcing a nominally Christian conception on politics, and preparing society for the fascism of ‘dominionism’, a word for the open ambition to subject the state to control by ‘fundamentalists’ of various flavours. The Margaret Attwood dystopia of Gilead.

In Australia, dominionism, also known as the ‘Seven Mountains’ doctrine, is enthusiastically embraced by the Pentecostal cult, with Scott Morrison as its chief public advocate, even in political opposition. The members of this Christofascist cult are mostly dupes—the ‘rubes’ Hartman wrote about—who see themselves as ‘mainstream Christians’, because that’s what they are told to think.

However, the difference between mainstream Christianity and a cult is that the former focuses on spirituality and the virtues of Jesus Christ, while cults are established for dishonest purposes under the guise of religion with little pretence at promoting Christian virtue. If a ‘church’ hierarchy pursues other than spiritual goals, and harnesses its members to non-spiritual purposes, the label is appropriate. In that context, no one should be fooled by Scott Morrison’s public act: while he may or may not have any religious beliefs at all, he certainly supports the social and political power a cult can exercise, along with its doctrines about dominionism, and the idea of the Rapture/End of Days.

Pentecostalism is first and foremost a deliberate financial swindle, assisted by generous tax laws, and then also works to assist the members of the cult hierarchy to exploit the ‘faithful’ sexually, and for social and political capital, mostly in advancing the interests of entitled, white, male chauvinists, but also to undermine democracy in the not always unwitting service of plutocrats and demagogues.

It is no accident that Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill, widely decried as an attempt to legalize bigotry in employment law, would also have given legal protection to religious organizations pursuing ‘sincere’ beliefs in politics; the secular state being challenged with legally endorsed dominionism.

Australian neo-fascism

Australian right wingers enthusiastically embraced the American formula described by Hartman, culminating in the recently defeated Morrison government, in which Rupert Murdoch, religionism, and a timid kind of neo-fascism were prominent markers of what Hartman wrote about.

Many people like to think Australia has no fascists, mainly to avoid confronting the idea of their own collaboration with a fascist resurgence. Such people cling somewhat naïvely to the notion that it can’t be fascism if it doesn’t come with riding boots, uniforms, and Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco. Others cling to equally facile stereotypes like skinheads and stiff-armed salutes as a necessary indicator. The reality is that all the most successful fascists today dress in business attire, and don’t oblige simpletons by wearing obvious labels.

A comparison between the characteristics of the Morrison Government and Umberto Eco’s features of ur-fascism tells its own story. It doesn’t matter that contemporary fascists rarely like to call themselves that. What counts is what they do, and why.

These developments should alarm those on the left of Australian politics, but not to the extent of embracing that other great blight of the 20th century: Stalinism and its methods.

Unfortunately that is exactly what’s happened among a new generation of activists, although principally the armchair social media kind.

Those new activists mostly don’t recognize themselves as neo-Stalinists simply because they never learnt what Stalinism was and why using its methods makes them no better than the religious fanatics and right wing extremists they decry. They are guilty, perhaps, of uncritically adopting rhetoric and arguments they don’t really understand, but which they should recognize as baleful and fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy and all the justice they claim they stand for.

Neo-Stalinism

Writing almost 30 years ago, American academic Peter Drucker wrote:

It was from the Stalinists, and especially from the Stalinists in academia, that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy learned his tactics of character assassination, of unproven, undocumented allegations, of persecution by lies, innuendos, and intimidation. And it was largely because academia had so ignominiously submitted to the Stalinists ten or fifteen years earlier that McCarthy knew that he could attack it without running much risk of encountering resistance. Above all, American academia was so deeply imbued with guilt feelings for having acquiesced in, and submitted to, Stalinist political correctness–and, in many cases, for aiding and abetting the denunciation, slander, and persecution of non-Stalinist colleagues–that it was cowed by McCarthy’s scurrilous attacks even though, as events proved soon enough, the senator was all bluff and little more than a big stink.

In 1927 the French writer Julien Benda (1867-1956) published a work, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), which castigated the scholars and writers who, out of cowardice, lust for power, or simply “to be with it,” abdicated their duty, betrayed their values, and joined the new barbarians of the left or the right. This, Benda warned, could only destroy the intellectuals themselves and any respect for them. The book was a bestseller when translated into English, especially in American academia. But not many heeded its warnings when political correctness came to the American campus ten years later.

Underneath this comment lies a deeper reality today forgotten by all but scholars of Soviet communism. ‘Political correctness’ is a discrete artefact of Leninist-Stalinist ideology, not the entirely meaningless phrase it has become in contemporary culture wars.

Lenin was an enthusiastic ‘politicizer’ of engineering and science methods, paradoxically along the lines of the American theory of industrial efficiency often referred to as Fordism or Taylorism. Lenin sought to fuse that technical rationality with politics to inject into his party’s ideology the same kind of deterministic ‘certainty’ or ‘correctness’ he saw as underpinning engineering and scientific principles.

To accomplish this fusion, Lenin began to talk and write about ‘politicheskaya pravil’nost’, meaning political correctness. He defined his intentions in circuitous fashion, talking about such matters as:

  • trends that ‘threaten to divert the movement from the correct path’ with correctly defined tasks and arguments comprising ‘the correctness of our position’ (from What Is To Be Done, 1902);
  • opposition to ‘individual elements and trends not fully consistent, not completely Marxist and not altogether correct’ that require ‘periodical “cleansings” of its ranks’ (from ‘Party Organisation and Party Literature’, 1905);
  • ‘the correctness of our resolution’, implies that ‘“Treachery” is not “an abusive term” … it is the only scientifically and politically correct term with which to express the actual facts about, and the actual aspirations of, the bourgeoisie’ (from ‘How Comrade Plekhanov Argues About Social-Democratic Tactics’, 1906); and
  • persistent mentions of ‘correct historical evaluation of economic development’ (in ‘A Revision of the Party Programme’, 1917, and subsequent works).

Lenin asserted that only his party represented the correct interpretation of Marx, and the correct manifesto of action and thought. Implicit in this formula, too, was the idea that no basis for politics was valid at all if it wasn’t Marxism-Leninism. This might be seen historically as the beginning of the ‘secular’ theocratic turn by which communism assumed a supreme, tyrannical authority, dealing in unquestioning faith (or obedience), and pursuing the persecution of dissent as heresy.

Lenin was quite open about justifying the terror of mass murder as a necessary adjunct of the revolution, and as a ‘correct’ implementation of Marxism. Stalin enthusiastically embraced this approach, and set himself up as the sole international authority on the ‘correct’ interpretation, implementation, and methods of Soviet communism. Methods Drucker says American academics had absorbed in the 1930s, and that were thrown back at them via McCarthyism in the 1950s.

It is in the original Bolshevik form of political correctness that it reappears in contemporary left politics, particularly in identity politics, with any self-nominated identity group being the self-appointed, Stalinist arbiter of the ‘correct’ interpretation of public ethics, political truthfulness, and the manifest righteousness of its causes. Those who transgress against these mostly uncodified rules face social media witch-hunting, ‘cancellation’, and other censures.

The original, Bolshevik form of ‘cancellation’.

Yet the strategy is plainly absurd: every identity group can lay claim to this supreme authority. It’s a ratio of insanity, because the lowest common denominator in identity is the self: I can claim to be an identity group in my own right, perhaps as the logical end point of American notions about individual liberty. The consequence is a perspective in which no opportunity for peaceful pluralist social coexistence is acknowledged at all any more. The corollary is that by these very rules, no legitimacy can exist for any identity group, including me as an individual.

The irrationality of this Stalinist position points to another uncomfortable truth: there is very little difference between Christofascism/fascism, and neo-Stalinism.

Why ideology and religion are the same beast

Today’s ideological and religionist cultism is quite easy to understand when we consider it in terms of the conflicts that followed the Reformation. It is the inevitably bloody-minded confrontation that inevitably occurs between people convinced of the absolute righteousness of their beliefs.

That mindset delivered the horrendously bloody, destructive 30 Years War. A war so disastrous that European states came to accept the only way to avoid such slaughter and chaos was to separate church and state, to create secular states in which all could believe as they wished, but none could foment or raise their hands against others on the basis of belief.

If religion can be defined as a ‘personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’ (Merriam-Webster), there is clearly little difference between religion and ideology—a personal set or institutionalized system of political attitudes, beliefs, and practices. In both cases, rationality is banished by faith. Ideology and religion both require unquestioning belief in their tenets, rejecting any critique, no matter how rational or evidence-based. Hence the bitter and uncompromising clashes between them.

But tell any of the acolytes of these faiths that they are advocating for intolerance and extremism, and they will push out their lower lips like sulking children, complaining artlessly that it is they who are being wronged, or even oppressed!

We get indignant complaints, telling us that ‘religious’ people are being discriminated against by not being allowed to discriminate against others, that decent capitalist folk are being sidelined by pinko elitists, or that some groups are being threatened with the extermination of their very identities. The closer you look at any such arguments, the more they are exposed as really low wattage stuff.

Worst of all is the imported American tendency for all three kinds of totalitarians to argue that if you don’t agree with them, you must be on ‘the other side’. What utter tosh. Why would any reasonable-minded person want to be on any of those sides?

The idea of a rational liberalism, in which earnest attempts are made to identify and address social and political problems, but on the basis of evidence-based critical analysis, has been discarded, most likely because it’s hard work, requiring an understanding of the issues in depth, including their histories and origins in social, philosophic,economic, and political ideas. A discipline that is antithetical to the easy slogans and dumbed-down rhetorics Orwell wrote about, but that nevertheless dominate contemporary political discussions.

A much more rational political conception would be the precondition in political debate of rejecting all doctrines that demand unreasoning division, hatred, and especially violence. That includes the armchair variant of violence, which is poisonous and bullying rather than directly physical.

It may be news to some, but there are many millions of people on the planet who have no time at all for stone age belief-sets, or their ideological equivalents, and who want nothing more than to be free of the ridiculous, anti-intellectual boorishness of such faiths.

It is no sign of civilized behaviour to tolerate the intolerable. Rather it is a form of insanity to respect the very people who harbour not so secret desires to do you harm, and to unpick civilization until ignorance and superstition are once more the fate of all humankind, like a dark and starless night setting in over the planet.

If the pay-off for Christofascism/fascism is an avaricious corruption by populists that is tolerable to the plutocrats who are actually in charge, and the reward for neo-Stalinism is the same mob hysteria and bloodlust enjoyed by football louts, what’s in all of this for rational secularists?

In Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal 1946 lecture, Existentialism and Humanism, he said:

Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be.

Substitute ‘fascism’ with ‘neo-Stalinism’ or ‘Christofascism’, and the sentiment remains the same. Substitute ‘things’ with ‘god’s plan’, and the paragraph still maintains its integrity.

It’s a direct challenge to us all to prevent such extremisms from gaining public acceptability, especially so since neither our mass media nor our major political parties show any sign that they are willing to act to prevent that slide into autocracy and totalitarianism.

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