Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fighting Fundamentalism, Fanaticism and Tyranny

Reviews by Bill Doughty

Adm. John Sylvester "Slew" McCain.
One hundred years ago, in August 1917, Lt. John S. "Slew" McCain (grandfather of Sen. John S. McCain) served aboard USS San Diego (Armored Cruiser No. 6). 

The USS San Diego joined the Atlantic Fleet to perform vital escort duties, protecting American ships from German attack in the First World War.

Out of the ashes of World War I, nationalism and Nazism arose in Germany. Tyranny grew and spread in Imperial Japan, leading to World War II. 

Sen. McCain's grandfather, Adm. John S. "Slew" McCain took a stand as Pacific Carrier Commander, alongside other heroes like Nimitz, Spruance, King, Mitscher and Halsey, to fight fundamentalism, tyranny and fanaticism nearly 75 years ago.

Three books explore those three concepts – fundamentalism, tyranny and fanaticism. One book also asks the question, "Can it happen here?"

From "A Little History of Religion" by Richard Holloway (Yale University Press, 2016):
"Fundamentalism is a tantrum. It's a screaming fit, a refusal to accept new realities" such as equality for women, gays and people of other races. "But if scientific change and the new knowledge it brings is hard for the fundamentalist mind to accept, even harder is change in the way we run society. In our era, religious fundamentalism became more agitated by social change than by the pressures of science. And in some of its forms not only did it get angry. It got violent."
Radical extremist fundamentalists such as ISIS claim their interpretation of reality is factual, even if it is not verified by a critical objective review of the facts.
"Fundamentalists don't debate. They don't try the evidence. They deliver a sentence. And it's always 'guilty' because their holy book has already decided the issue. This means that the crisis of fundamentalism in our time, including its violent versions, poses a question that goes to the heart of religions that claim to be based on a revelation that came directly from God. Surely, if it is used to justify not only the love of ignorance but the love of violence then there is something fundamentally wrong with it, to borrow their own language."
A contemporary of Adm. John S. McCain in both world wars, Sir Winston Churchill, believed that leaders must first and foremost have strong principles and then rely on objective facts upon which to base decisions.

The first targets of fascists and tyrants are reason, truth and free speech.

In Brian E. Fogarty's "Fascism: Why Not Here?" (Potomac Books, 2009) we see how authoritarianism arose in Germany in the 1930s, during the same years that Sen. McCain's grandfather was studying air warfare, on his way to earning his wings (at the age of 52) and becoming commander of USS Ranger (CV-4).

Fogarty defines fascism as "totalitarianism that enlists citizens against themselves."

Benjamin Franklin warned centuries earlier, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Sir Winston Churchill speaks at Harvard, Sept. 6, 1943.
On Sept. 6, 1943, speaking at Harvard University, Winston Churchill said, "Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilized, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat. In all this, we march together."

At the same time, in the late summer of 1943, Vice Adm. "Slew" McCain was the new Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air), about to head back to Pearl Harbor to take command of "huge task forces, spearheaded by carrier-based aircraft" against Imperial Japan.

Fogarty, like Holloway, spotlights the importance of objective facts and reason. He notes how in the 1930s the Nazis sponsored public book burnings, abolished the free press and dissent, and began to ostracize Jews and other non-Aryans as members of the public went along.

Brian Fogarty
"More than anything else, the rise of Nazism was fueled by the negation of reason as a basis for government and for social and political discourse," Fogarty writes.

"Without universal or at least agreed-upon standards of knowledge, the truth of a statement comes to depend on the speaker's identity, persuasiveness or charisma." That can lead to blindly following, as happened in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the early part of the last century.

"People commit evil, or acquiesce as others do it in their name, when it is sanctioned and legitimated by the community in which they belong." He warns us to beware of a "vortex of fear that drown(s) out debate and reason."

So, "why not here?" or put another way in the book's final chapter, "Can It Happen Here?" Fogarty answers with "fundamental ambiguity":
"On the one hand, Americans have a history since the nation's beginning of fierce individualism and of resistance to authority. The national mythology is replete with challenges to every social institution – state, family, church, school – and Americans tell and retell the stories of dissidents and rebels. One of the abiding national myths is the revolution against the English mother country – the most powerful empire of its day – which gave birth to the nation itself. And viewed from this perspective, we have been a nation of rebels ever since, from the Shays and Whiskey rebellions, to slave revolts and the Underground Railroad, to the abolition movement and John Brown's insurrection, and to the Civil War itself. More recent social and cultural movements have also challenged popular convention if not the authority of the state ... It is true that Americans have not hesitated to defy authority when they found it necessary, but they also have been astonishingly conformist and willing to acquiesce in their own oppression when faced with uncertainty and threats. Even the most revered acts of resistance to authority – women's suffrage, civil rights, (the counterculture movement of the Vietnam era, gay pride), and many other movements – usually brought negative reactions from fellow citizens who viewed the causes as un-American, immoral, sinful, or just weird."
Germany and Japan suffered greatly after the worldwide depression. Both had a chip-on-their-shoulder nationalist attitude as victims who wanted to participate in global imperialism. That's why most of their citizenry supported race-based fascism leading to the Second World War.

As an immigrant nation, however, the United States may not be as susceptible. Here, "racism has been more divisive than unifying," for most Americans. Diversity may be our biggest strength in being able to resist fundamentalism, tyranny and fascism.

Fogarty writes, "American society includes too many ethnic and racial groups to form a credible 'them' from which 'we' can protect ourselves." But he says, we may not have faced a major enough threat to our security, and we may, when really tested, have the propensity collectively to choose safety over liberty.

"Our history demonstrates that Americans have the capacity to react to adversity in a general director toward fascism," he concludes.

"On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2017) explores how leaders embrace fundamentalism, reject facts and rely on arguments of victimization:
"Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who declined to give voice to the people. They put a face on globalization, arguing that is complex challenges were the result of a conspiracy against the nation. Fascists ruled for a decade or two [Hitler and his ilk], leaving behind an intact intellectual legacy that grows more relevant by the day. Communists ruled for longer, for nearly seven decades in the Soviet Union, and more than four decades in much of eastern Europe [and to this day in North Korea]. They proposed rule by a disciplined party elite with a monopoly on reason that would guide society toward a certain future according to supposedly fixed laws of history."
As a champion for freedom and democracy – and an intense study of history – Churchill stood strong against Hitler. He was a lynchpin in opposing tyranny and fascism. "Had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940, there would have been no such war to fight."

The late Christopher Hitchens warned of tyrants who are unpredictable and who don't believe in facts. 

Reading is inoculation to protect us from fascism and tyranny. Otherwise we're at risk of a society as painted by Ray Bradbury in "Fahrenheit 451" and George Orwell in "1984."

Bradbury's "firefighters" were authoritarian book burners. In "1984" Orwell describes not only the pollution of ideals and objective facts but also the dissolution of meaning and disappearance of words.

In his "The Principles of Newspeak" appendix to "1984," Orwell writes: "Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words to a minimum."

Among Snyder's recommended list of books and authors packed into this slim collection of how-to advice:
  • "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera
  • "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis
  • "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth
  • "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J. K. Rowling
  • "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell
  • "The Language of the Third Reich" by Victor Klemperer
  • "The Origins of Totalitarianism" by Hannah Arendt
  • "The Rebel" by Albert Camus
  • "The Captive Mind" by Czeslaw Milsosz
  • "The Power of the Powerless" by Vaclav Haval
  • "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" by Peter Pomerantsev
Timothy Snyder
Snyder asks us to examine the difference between nationalism and patriotism.
"A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, 'although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,' wrote Orwell, tends to be 'uninterested in what happens in the real world.' Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others."
Chapter 10 is called "Believe in truth": "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights."

Three generations of John S. McCains.
Chapter 10 is titled "Be a patriot": "Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it."

Adm. John S. "Slew" McCain demonstrated his patriotism fighting for his country in both World Wars, eventually standing aboard USS Missouri (BB-63) for the surrender of Imperial Japan. Militarists in Japan were purveyors of a spreading nationalism and fascist tyranny in Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

Adm. McCain's son was another four-star flag officer, Adm. John S. "Jack" McCain Jr., a submariner who also fought in WWII. Jack McCain also fought during the Cold War and, of course, during the Vietnam War, where his son, Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, the future senior senator of Arizona, was imprisoned as a POW for five-and-half years.

The McCains' story is one of service and sacrifice. Adm. "Slew" McCain, who saw so many naval aviators go to their deaths, died four days after Japan's surrender. Adm. Jack McCain had to carry out President Nixon's orders to bomb Hanoi, where he knew his son was a POW. Sen. John McCain has been serving his country throughout his life.

The legacy of another WWII naval hero, President John F. Kennedy, recognized Sen. McCain's patriotism. Sen. John McCain received the JFK Profile in Courage award from the Kennedy family for his commitment toward campaign finance reform. In his acceptance speech of May 24, 1999, McCain said: 

JFK's brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and daughter, Caroline, present Sen. McCain the courage award. 
"Most Americans believe that we all conspire to hold on to every political advantage we have, lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. Most Americans believe we would let this nation pay any price, bear any burden to ensure the success of our personal ambitions – no matter how injurious the effect might be to the national interest. And who can blame them. As long as the wealthiest Americans and the richest organized interests can make six figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician’s claim of patriotism ... In John Kennedy’s memorable phrase, 'without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget the courage with which men have lived.' I’ve seen more than my fair share of both kinds. And I could not forget them if I wanted to." – Sen. John S. McCain.

According to Fogarty in "Fascism: Why Not Here," again from 2009, citing the work of Nancy Bermeo, "The mutual demonization of opposing parties locks up the machinery of government":
"The single best predictor of success for fascist movements is political polarization ... Such movements tend to be antidemocratic because they blame the democratic process itself as the cause of the gridlock. When parties have become so polarized that all anyone – voters included – can think of is vanquishing opponents, then a sort of political disillusionment sets in, and political principles give way to an empty contentiousness. A second useful generalization about the rise of such movements is that they tend to occur when existing democratic regimes are incompetent. Government is not just a theater for ideological or political drama; it is also an essential institution to human life. People get hurt when it doesn't work ... These two generalizations offer a warning to Americans: beware those who seek always to discredit government, to blame it for the nation's ills, and to alienate citizens from its workings ... Their game is to alienate citizens from their government, to trivialize the vote, and to make the democratic process look ineffective and foolish. The best way to prevent fascism is to avoid alienation, to resist extreme polarization, and to remain connected to the political process."
Looking toward the future back in 2009, in the face of crises, when the Great Recession and Iraq and Afghanistan wars were deepening, Fogarty asked, "How will Americans react ... Will we still value our individualism and love of liberty? Or will we find a leader with a bold plan that requires new conquests, new enemies, or a new world order. Will Americans reject the cool rationalism of the Obama presidency and rush to a bold outsider with a simple explanation and audacious plans?"

CAM RANH, Vietnam (June 2, 2017) Sen. John S. McCain III is piped aboard during a visit to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. The U.S. Navy has patrolled the Indo-Asia-Pacific routinely for more than 70 years promoting regional peace and security. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Mortensen/Released)

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