So am I a fascist because I’m open to the idea of expanding freedoms in modern America?
A few years ago I was taking part in a leadership development program organized by my local community. It was a laudable goal: to bring together a cohort of leaders who would engage all aspects of the city—government, arts, business, education, and non-profits. For the most part it was a fascinating exploration. One experience, however, left me disturbed because of the flippant misuse of language.
A community activist was talking about the tragic absence of healthy eating alternatives in an underprivileged neighborhood in the area. Instead of health food stores and fresh markets, the residents had fast food outlets and liquor stores in their immediate proximity. I was tracking with the conversation and feeling some genuine concern about the situation… until the speaker called it economic apartheid. My reaction turned—aggressively—in the other direction.
I raised my hand and shared with the group that I had traveled to South Africa in the mid 1990s, just as the country was transitioning from white minority rule, enforced by an apartheid regime, to a truly open, democratic system. I actually saw Nelson Mandela speak less than six months after his inauguration. I then asked the community activist how a business operating in a free-market system choosing not to locate in a certain neighborhood constitutes apartheid. She was immediately on the defensive.
Then I went way too far. I told a story about how my great-grandmother Sarah immigrated to the US from Czarist Russia, and, along the way, endured an 1,100-mile walk, a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean as a stowaway on a cargo ship, a humiliating ordeal being processed at Ellis Island, and a disastrous train ride to Chicago (the train caught on fire and exploded). I then topped the story off by revealing that the day after she arrived in her new country, after six months of travel—as a 13-year-old girl—she went to work rolling cigarettes at a factory. I then said, “If my great-grandma Sarah could go through all of these struggles, then surely someone in this neighborhood can travel four blocks to get a healthy meal.”
Everyone was stunned—both at the drama and spectacle of my story and at the impudence of my behavior.
While I later apologized for the grandstanding on my behalf, I didn’t (and currently don’t) feel regretful about calling out the hyperbole on the part of the community organizer. Calling a lack of availability of healthy food in a community a form of apartheid is not only an exaggeration, it is also an insult to all of the people who endured decades of misery and hardship at the hands of the National Party in South Africa. While I don’t want to discount the struggles of people in underprivileged neighborhoods in contemporary America, I don’t want to use language that creates a false analogy. It doesn’t help.
I write this now because of a new, disturbing trend in American politics. Just a few days ago Ted Cruz, Republican presidential candidate from Texas, in a speech to Iowa conservatives railed against the “Liberal Fascism” present in America these days. He went to say that Liberal America is waging war on Christian America and that religious liberty is under total assault. He encouraged the audience to “fall to their knees” and pray that the US Supreme Court defends traditional marriage in their upcoming ruling.
First of all, Ted Cruz and his followers can believe whatever they want to believe. They can also advocate their position with vigor and vitality. But comparing Liberal America to a fascist movement… this is absurd, outrageous, and offensive! Although Ted Cruz is not the first politician to label Liberal America in this manner, he is certainly one of the most high profile, especially given his role as presidential contender.
From my point of view I would like you, the reader, to consider three things related to these comments:
- Fascism advocates the consolidation of all aspects of a society around a fixed national identity typically rooted in race or ethnicity. I’m not sure how Liberal America is guilty of fascist leanings by attempting to ensure equal protection for traditionally marginalized groups. If anything, it’s the antithesis of fascism. Expanding freedoms is typically not a precursor to totalitarian rule.
- Demonizing his opponents is likely not a great strategy to get him what he wants. While most people who would fit into Liberal America would never vote for Cruz in the first place, anyone on the margins—such as people who believe in preserving some aspects of a traditional core of American society—is sure to be offended by this rhetoric. I personally don’t see myself as part of Liberal America (or Conservative America). I’m a true independent. So am I a fascist because I’m open to the idea of expanding freedoms in modern America?
- Close to 30 million people died at the hands of fascist regimes in World War Two—and millions more in neo-fascist regimes during the Cold War. These people faced government policies explicitly written to exclude and marginalize them. They encountered death squads trained to execute them. Please don’t equate civil society efforts in twenty-first-century with these hideous regimes.
To Ted Cruz—and everyone else looking to make the headlines—please don’t bolster your claims by creating false equivalencies. Believe what you want to believe and make your arguments. But let the merits of your ideas carry you to victory rather than the toxicity of your exaggerated venom.
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