Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]

When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)

Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.

I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.

It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)

I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This could be much more simply rendered as:

It’s better not to know some things.”

Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?

pgwodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse

Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:

“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”

He could have just written:

“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”

Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.

As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place

Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.

Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”

This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.

Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:

“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”

But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.

To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.

So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?

My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.

Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing.  Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.

Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book.  And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?

The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.

In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”

This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:

Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk

This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.

star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

amidala
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

My favorite part of the book 1984 by George Orwell is the appendix, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.” In 1984, Newspeak was the official language of the Party that ruled Oceania.  As the Appendix states:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…

Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Why do I mention this?  Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.

One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”

If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.

When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.

If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing.  But it is far worse than that.

The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious.  People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.

But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him.  And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.

To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.

David Wong, writing in Cracked, lists “5 ways to spot a B.S. Political Story”. He highlights certain words that appear in political headlines, and what they often signify. It would be easy to blame this on lazy journalists; however, it’s really very easy to find yourself repeating the same phrases that are familiar to you. And it’s a huge hindrance to writing about politics. George Orwell famously advised in his essay Politics and the English Language:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Great advice, and so naturally very difficult to heed. I’ve probably fallen back on time-worn phrases countless times in writing this blog. As people acquire language largely through imitation, it’s only natural that we fall easily into imitation when using it.

Wong also laments how stories often couch everything purely in terms of political points scored. He writes of the headline “Slowdown in U.S. jobs growth deals a blow to Obama.”:

How about the millions of people who are out of work? Hey, guys, I don’t know if you realize this, but the world actually exists. Those numbers on the screen represent actual humans who are actually suffering. No, really! It’s not a video game!

The reason the press has to couch everything in this manner is simple: otherwise, they get called for political bias. Wong talks about stories that treat, for example, the healthcare law as merely a political “horse-race” issue, but the poor writers have only two other options:

  1. Write headlines like “Supreme Court to render millions uninsured”–a headline which would cause all the Republicans to gripe even more than usual about “liberal bias”, and whine that this was “value-laden language”.
  2. Capitulate to the Republicans entirely and write headlines like “Supreme Court to free millions from yoke of socialism”.

The first thing will never happen, because hell hath no fury like a Republican who is mad at the press. The second thing is out at every news source that has some interest in the truth. So, all that’s left is the horse-race approach. After all, no one can complain that it’s biased.

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible… Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words…”–George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Appendix: “The Principles of Newspeak“. 

In other news, “OMG” is now in the dictionary.

I don’t oppose abbreviations like “OMG” or “IMHO”  as such; brevity is, in some media, most valuable. But is it really necessary to put it in the dictionary?  They are just abbreviations for ordinary words, and convey no new meaning themselves.

But perhaps I’m simply a reactionary. What say you? Am I too punctilious about these things?

P.S. I realize it’s something of a cliche to quote Orwell on matters like this. But it’s a cliche because it fits.

I just started reading George Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia. It’s a fascinating read for a host of reasons, not least for passages like this:

“When a man refused to obey an order, you did not immediately get him punished; you first appealed to him in the name of comradeship. Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say instantly that this would never work, but as a matter of fact it does ‘work’, in the long run.”

I confess that, when I read the first line, I myself thought “that would never work”.

What amazes me most about the book so far, though, is how witty Orwell could be, given the fact that the period he is describing–like most of his life, really–was quite miserable.

You know how athletes frequently thank God after good performances? Well, here’s the first instance I’ve ever heard of where an athlete seemingly got mad at God after a bad performance:

“Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown in the end zone Sunday in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers… After the game, Johnson’s twitter account filed this faithy [sic] tweet:

‘I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…'”

I always wondered when this would happen. Frankly, I’m surprised it took so long. Although, while most people assume the tweet is supposed to be directed at God, I am not so sure that that’s what the guy meant. It’s vague enough it could mean something else.

(Then again, almost everything on Twitter seems to me to be incomprehensible. I hate Twitter. Twitter = Newspeak, as far as I’m concerned. But that’s another post.)

While reading about the “American Exceptionalism: Does Obama believe in it?” debate, I came across this  interview with Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism
http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/assets/swf/CSPANPlayer.swf?pid=296418-1&start=2780&end=3058

First of all, Goldberg asserts that we as a country are patriotic, not nationalistic. I disagree. I believe every country has its patriots and nationalists. I have been for a long time using Orwell’s definition of the difference:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation…” 

However, it would be unfair not to also take into account Goldberg’s definition from Liberal Fascism:

“Patriots revere ideas, institutions, and traditions of a particular country and its government. The watchwords for nationalists are ‘blood’, ‘soil’, ‘race’, ‘Volk‘, and so forth.” 

This definition, I think, makes it too easy to categorize Nationalists as simple racists. This fails to address  phenomena such as “Civic Nationalism” (sometimes called “Liberal Nationalism”) which is not a racist ideology. (To be fair to Goldberg, in the relevant passage he is mainly discussing Hitler, who was a racist as well as a Nationalist.)

But since the original question was “Is American Exceptionalism Fascist?”, then it is neccesary to figure out what “Fascism” really is. Goldberg calls it a “religion of the State”–meaning people worship the government, not any God. This is a weak definition, in my opinion, because even in Fascist Italy, the Church was not replaced; it merely allied with the Fascist government.

Broadly speaking, Fascism is a kind of Socialism for Nationalists. (It is no coincidence that people equate the “National Socialists” of Germany with Fascism.) Again, to quote from Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism:

“Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view that ‘workers’ as a class were more bound by common interests than any other criteria. Implicit in the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the idea that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other ‘opiate’ of the masses… What was then called socialism was really just a kind of socialism: International Socialism. Mussolini was interested in creating a new socialism, a socialism in one state, a national socialism…” 

The Nation, therefore, was the unit which the Socialistic policies were to benefit. Indeed, socialism is really just a kind of sacrificing of the individual to the whole (“the greater good”) and therefore is implicit in nationalism, militarism or indeed almost any kind of team effort.

Indeed, Mussolini was not alone in tying Socialist ideas to National tradition. In 1919, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, sometimes called a “proto-Nazi”, wrote in Prussiandom and Socialism:

“We now face the task of liberating German socialism from Marx. I say German socialism, for there is no other. This, too, is one of the truths that no longer lie hidden. Perhaps no one has mentioned it before, but we Germans are socialists. The others cannot possibly be socialists…The spirit of Old Prussia and the socialist attitude, at present driven by brotherly hatred to combat each other, are in fact one and the same.”

Now, Goldberg believes that this idea of “American exceptionalism” makes us immune to fascism because what makes America exceptional is people’s general resistance to governmental authority. Therefore, Goldberg reasons, we could never be a “religion of the state” because Americans, unlike most people, are hostile to the state.

One problem with American exceptionalism seems, superficially, to be merely a matter of etiquette. It is one thing for a foreigner to say America is exceptional; quite another for an American to say it. At a high-level, it is the difference between someone telling you “You’re very intelligent” and you yourself saying you’re very intelligent. (Incidentally, it was Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, who was the first to articulate the idea that America was exceptional.)

But the issue is deeper than simple manners. The real issue is that, if we suppose that America is an exceptional nation–or, perhaps more accurately, that the American people are an exceptional people–there is still the matter of how it came about. Is it earned or inherent? More specifically: are Americans supposed to be exceptional by virtue of the principles of our Constitution? Or is it a more mystical thing?

If we Americans are supposed to be exceptional purely because we are Americans, then there is a kind of mystical theory at work here–we are dealing in terms of the “People” and the “Soil” once again. (I must choose my words carefully here, else I shall have to order myself to quit comparing everyone to the Nazis.)

Goldberg is probably correct that Americans are more instinctively hostile to government than most. Yet, this is not always the case. After all, didn’t most people readily believe the government’s worst-case claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Recall also, the fact that it was Europeans–the French and the Germans–who were most mocked for resisting the administration’s claims. It was un-American to oppose the war; it was French. (Remember “Freedom Fries”?)

I suspect, moreover, that the same people who believed that the Iraq invasion was justified on the grounds of WMD possession are currently the ones who are most distrustful of the government. And I suspect this is because they are Republicans, and therefore are inclined to believe a Republican administration and distrust a Democratic one. Call it a Leap of Faith, if you like.

Goldberg is not wrong when he says that American exceptionalism is not fascism. It is true that if we adhere to “American exceptionalism” purely as a sort of ultra-individualist/libertarian creed to always question authority, then that would be a good defense against an authoritarian regime or a too-powerful government.

The problem is, we can’t all be anti-government all the time. When Republicans are in power, Republicans generally are willing to go along with the expansion of government power, especially when it comes to National Defense. When Democrats are in, they are willing to go along with it to expand the welfare state.

 As I’ve said before, I’ve come to realize that when either Party is out of power, it uses the Libertarians to its advantage; then casts them aside when it retakes power. The Libertarians have seemingly failed to notice this thus far. And I think that Goldberg, who is more of a Libertarian than a straight-up Social Conservative/Nationalist, is willfully blind to this.

Ultimately, whether or not belief in American Exceptionalism is Nationalist (which is a more accurate word than “fascism”) depends on the reason one believes America to be exceptional. If one means only that America is unique among nations, that is not Nationalistic. (Of course, all nations are “unique” in some way. That’s why they’re nations.) Likewise, if one means something about the behavior of American people, anti-government or otherwise, than this also need not be nationalistic.

It is when we get to the mystical or super/preternatural reasons for American exceptionalism; what we might call “Inherent American Exceptionalism”, that it takes on the resemblance to a nationalist movement.

Via Andrew Sullivan, a brutally good review of Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Andrew Ferguson, who writes:

“Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the public’s attention from all of the above. 

How did the left-wing, coke-snorting Manchurian candidate become the fondly remembered Democrat-you-could-do-business-with—“good old Bill,” in Sean Hannity’s phrase?

Barack Obama is what happened. The partisan mind—left-wing or right-wing, Republican or Democrat—is incapable of maintaining more than one oversized object of irrational contempt at a time…. 

We should probably be grateful for this psychological limitation. Without it the negativity of our politics would be relentless. Like Ronald Reagan before him, George W. Bush was reviled for eight years by Democrats driven mad by a sputtering rage—the “most right-wing president in history”!—but it’s only a matter of time until they rediscover him…” 

It’s worth reading his review in full, but this passage is the most illuminating.

I do have to disagree with his assertion that “we should be grateful for this”, though. The phenomenon makes it incredibly difficult to tell what the hell the actual truth is.

I am sure that some liberals have experienced a little bit of nostalgia for George W. Bush and his crew, not as President, of course, but as leader of the Republican party. I myself feel that Bush was much less hostile to liberal values than, say, Sarah Palin. And I can recall Bush making many statements which the current GOP leaders would no doubt condemn in a heartbeat were they uttered by President Obama. So, I don’t think it’s entirely partisan rage.

I would also argue, therefore, that this is, at least partially, strategically sound thinking. Bush is retired; he’s not going to screw things up any more for liberals. Similarly, Clinton may make a few speeches, but he’s not going to do anything substantive to fight the Republicans agenda again. (Some would argue that he never did)

Nevertheless, Ferguson has touched on a disturbing truth in modern politics.

One of the most fascinating ideas in George Orwell’s novel 1984 was the Two Minutes’ Hate, which is an activity where all the Party members go every day to vent their fury at the enemies of the Party. Orwell describes it as “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness…turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

In 1984, when the Two Minutes’ Hate is over, everyone goes back to their duties. The fact that it is so readily turned on and off, and so easily transfered, is what is really insidious about it; it demonstrates the way that people are manipulated by the totalitarian government of Orwell’s novel.

Therefore, I  think that the temporary nature of this fury that Ferguson describes is what is most disturbing about it–it suggests that people are being manipulated to feel it.