Walter Lippman in the Tropics: A Note on Why The Study of Neo-Fascism in the Americas Is Not a Meaningless Exercise

The Roman Lictor: “The lictor’s main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium.” Wikipedia factoid: “Lictors are the ‘prisonkeepers of humanity’ in the roleplaying game KULT.” The Brazilian folkloric equivalents for imperium and lictor would be coronel and capanga, I think, while notions very similar to imperium figure prominently in the apologetics of the latifúndio.

Covering ‘Fascist’ America: Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark mocks a new book by Naomi Wolf, in which she argues that Bush’s America has characteristics in common with fascist regimes and ideologies of the 20th century.

A word like “fascism,” derived from an Italian word meaning a “bunch” or “bundle,” carries a specific historical and political meaning, but over the course of a century now bears a heavy freight, a cargo of associations so overpowering it may have lost its ability to be tested by argument and evidence.

“May have”?

The etymological information provided here is wholly and gabblingly inaccurate, emptying the finger-wagging lecture on politics and the English language that ensues of its scholarly credibility.

From the Latin fasces, a group of tightly bundled rods with an axe head protruding from one end, a Roman symbol of power and unity. First applied to Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in Italy in the 1920s, and later to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party in Germany and Francisco Franco’s Falange Española Tradicionalista in Spain.The term fascist is sometimes more loosely used to describe a state or person willing to employ propaganda, intimidation and violence to achieve its ends.

That is, the term fascism derives from a Latin term whose context is the Roman legal theory of imperial authority. The fasces used to symbolize the political movement defined by Mussolini in his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism refer, more specifically, to the symbol of office of the Roman lictor:

Fascism, in short, is not only the giver of laws and the founder of institutions, but the educator and promoter of spiritual life. It wants to remake, not the forms of human life, but its content, man, character, faith. And to this end it requires discipline and authority that can enter into the spirits of men and there govern unopposed. Its sign, therefore, is the Lictors’ rods, the symbol of unity, of strength and justice.

(Fascism is a form of content management.)

Clark is just dead wrong on this point.

If anyone is using the term with a dangerous degree of looseness, in fact, it is Clark himself.

Look, if you want to defend the relevance of an historical analysis of fascist ideology and its historical variants and evolutions to the contemporary political scene, you need only look at the continuing influence of Walter Lippman’s body of work on the theory and practice of contemporary mass communication.

It is not by accident that the Nieman Project on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University — which the Poynter Institute sponsors — is located in Lippman House. On which more later, in some detail.

There are, notoriously, a number of nearly identical ideological theses common to Lipmann’s The Phantom Public (1927), for example, and the Doctrine of Fascism (1932).

Let me just give one broad example, by way of a quick illustration; maybe later I will write up a closer, point-by-point analysis, after I finish building my bibliography on the subject.

I think I even have a copy of The Phantom Public around here somewhere, in fact, shelved right next to Carlos Lacerda’s The Power of Ideas.

For the time being, the Wikipedia Cliff Notes on Lippman’s argument get it generally right, I think:

Lippmann argues that public affairs are really in no way our own affairs, and are instead managed at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers. He sees two main problems with the system as it is: (1) Democratic theory places completely unrealistic expectations on its citizens to be knowledgeable enough to truly make educated decisions on public affairs.

Studying the journalistic practices of the Rede Globo in Brazil, it always strikes me how thoroughly and systematically Lippmaniac it is, in precisely this sense. Including its frequent recourse to the kind of gabbling pseudo-erudition Clark engages in here.

See, for example

He goes on to explain that he believes citizens have been asked to practice an unattainable ideal, and that from his perspective, he has not met anybody (including the President of the United States or a political science professor) who comes anywhere near to embodying the acceptable idea of a sovereign citizen.

A corollary of this point is notion that objectivity, balance and completeness of information are unrealizable ideals for a democratic theory of journalism. In that sense, the editorial standards of PBS 2.0 are also eminently Lippmaniac:

PBS recognizes that the producer of informational content deals neither in absolute truth nor in absolute objectivity. Information is by nature fragmentary; the honesty of a program, Web site, or other content can never be measured by a precise, scientifically verifiable formula. Therefore, content quality must depend, at bottom, on the producer’s professionalism, independence, honesty, integrity, sound judgment, common sense, open mindedness, and intention to inform, not to propagandize.PBS Editorial Standards


The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) incorporates a number of closely comparable ideas:

Fascism denies that the majority, through the mere fact of being a majority, can rule human societies; it denies that this majority can govern by means of a periodical consultation; it affirms the irremediable, fruitful and beneficent inequality of men, who cannot be leveled by such a mechanical and extrinsic fact as universal suffrage. . . . Democracy is a regime without a king, but with very many kings, perhaps more exclusive, tyrannical and violent than one king even though a tyrant. . . .

Noam Chomsky, of course, in Manufacturing Consent, has already given a thorough account of Lippman’s thought and its influence:

Another group that was impressed by these successes [of mass propaganda in mobilizing Americans behind WWI] were liberal Democratic theorists and leading media figures, like, for example, Walter Lippmann, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy. If you take a look at his collected essays, you’ll see that they’re subtitled something like “A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought.” Lippmann was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their achivements. He argued that what he called a “revolution in the art of democracy,” could be used to manufacture consent, that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda. He also thought that this was a good idea, in fact necessary. It was necessary because, as he put it, “the common interests elude public opinion entirely” and can only be understood and managed by a specialized class of responsible men who are smart enough to figure things out.

Elitism, defended by a theory of inherent human inequality that denies the possibility of social mobility and meritocracy.

This theory asserts that only a small elite, the intellectual community that the Deweyites were talking about, can understand the common interests, what all of us care about, and that these things “elude the general public.” This is a view that goes back hundreds of years. It’s also a typical Leninist view. In fact, it has very close resemblance to the Leninist conception that a vanguard of revolutionary intellectuals take state power, using popular revolutions as the force that brings them to state power, and then drive the stupid masses towards a future that they’re too dumb and incompetent to envision themselves.

Returning to the Brazilian case, it actually makes an awful sense that such journalistic practices would prevail at the Vênus Platinada, the Rede Globo, for various reasons. The Lippman-Dulles-Lacerda nexus, for one thing — a concrete, historical vector of practical influence, not just some vague coincidence of concepts.

The most prominent exponent of the Lippman tendency among exponents of the so-called Pragmatist tradition — their putative founding father, C.S. Peirce, famously repudiated what he considered their wilful misreading of his work — is Roberto Mangabeira Unger of Harvard Law School, author of Pragmatism Unbound.

On which more later. I have followed Unger’s recent career with close interest — and a certain amount of astonishment at the degree of intellectual dishonesty to which a prominent member of the Harvard faculty has proven himself capable in the course of recent events.

In sum, Poynter supports a very well-funded project that promotes a notion of journalism founded on the quasi-metaphysical presupposition that mass democracy is not a viable, or a desirable, project.

This, I think, might go a long way toward explaining the weakneses of the project.

A Poynter senior scholar, for example, who champions this school of thought cannot provide a more convincing refutation of the relevance of studying the history of fascist ideology and practice than this:

It is not the purpose of this essay to argue for or against the points she makes in her indictment. Instead, I’d like to call attention to the dangers of loose language (as I’ve done in the past with Bush’s use of “crusade” or’s “General Betray Us” ad).

In other words, he sets out to try to convince us that the use of the term “fascism” is an example of “loose language” at very same moment he refuses to analyze Wolf’s use of the term in any detail.

In other words, he begs the question.

“I find her use of the term dangerously loose, but I am not going to bother to defend that criticism with reference to actual examples of how she uses it.”

In the meantime, his own analysis of the term fascism fails to define it adequately.

It is, in fact, gabbling pseudoscholarly horseshit.

Finally, if you want a demonstration that fascist ideology is alive and well and living, for example, in Brazil, you have only to look at the recent political flap over slave labor at an agrobusiness facility in Northern Brazil, and the pronouncements of Sen. Katia Abreu (PFL-Tocantins) on “labor-management harmony without class struggle” with respect to that dispute between government inspectors and proprietors.

In other words, “ILO standards on slave-labor conditions are a communist plot and a violation of the sacred and historic principle of droit du seigneur. So if the elected government chooses to try to enforce those standards, the elected government can go fuck itself.”

This premise is a bald statement of fascist orthodoxy pure and simple, as anyone who has read the source documents on fascist social theory will immediately recognize. On which more soon.

Contemporary movements that explicitly identify themselves as neo-fascist openly defend the same premise. As do editorialists in the New York Sun, as I read recently.

Surely Clark does not think that neo-fascist political movements who openly identify themselves with fascist thinking, and cite fascist texts and treatises with great specificity — they practically go around wearing buttons saying “proud to be a Fascist” — are using the term with “dangerous looseness”?

That would be like claiming that when, say, James Brown sings “I’m black and I’m proud,” he is using color terminology with “dangerous looseness.” Just because the dictionary defines “black” as

being of the achromatic color of maximum darkness; having little or no hue owing to absorption of almost all incident light …

Among other things.

Pragmatism without boundaries: Brazil’s official political philosophy?


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