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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More on the Pernicious Bushoid Rhetoric of "Islamofascism"

In response to an earlier version of the argument I blogged here yesterday as This Should Go Without Saying, a critic elsewhere online proposed that I “need to realize that while words do have power, they don't have magical power. Running around trying to get people to stop using words you think are intrinsically harmful reminds me of the campaign back in the 80's to change the spelling of ‘women’ to ‘womyn’ on the grounds that sexism had its roots in language, and would whither away when language was changed -- a quarter-truth at best.” This critic went on to disagree with my worries about people who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead appearing to approve of Bushian rhetoric nevertheless taking up Bush’s “Islamofascist” rhetoric because they think it might comport well with a politics resisting dangerous religious fundamentalisms. “Personally, I have no problem with the context in which George (or Bush) used the term fascist,” my critic declared. “While we could quibble all day over technicalities, there's a generally accepted definition of Fascism that works perfectly well in describing militarized hyper-theocratic totalitarian police states, and an underlying reality that will not change -- even if you succeed in banning all the hurtful inflammatory words that so incense you.” Here is the response I offered to this criticism:

I don't think anything has magical powers, including words.

As it happens, it is quite clear that the Bush Administration has grasped to an unprecedented extent the extraordinary power in broadcast media architectures of framing, figuration, narrativization, and repetition/citation as ways of inculcating conceptual maps, concrete positions, and talking points that either directly support their views or constrain public debates in ways that end up facilitating such support.

In a particular argumentative circumstance you may have "no problem" with what looks to you like the logical, strictly propositional content of a particular claim. But, of course, public claims in the context of an unpopular and conspicuously ideological war typically do considerably more work than is available to straightforward propositional analysis.

Bush (a Christian fundamentalist who sometimes sounds like an outright Dominionist) does not mean by "fighting extremist fundamentalism" the same thing that, say, Richard Dawkins (an atheist) might mean by this phrase, and this actually does matter.

Bush's "Islamofascist" comments are clearly designed -- as I said before -- to invoke the same anti-Nazi war-film nostalgia as did his early "Axis of Evil" iconography, and the same Christian evangelism as did his early suggestion that the War was a kind of "Crusade."

You can be sensitive to these effects or not as you see fit.

If you choose not to be, let me just alert you to the reality that there are more than one billion living people on earth who may not share such insensitivity on this question and that we will be living with most of them for the rest of our lives (I certainly hope).

There is a separate but related question here about how atheists and other secularists should understand and combat fundamentalist formations in general. This is a topic to which I have devoted nearly twenty years of study and activism, as it happens, as a feminist and a queer and an atheist worried about what fundamentalism in my own country and elsewhere could mean to me and to people I love. I will admit I think it is a profound mistake to focus attention on the religiosity rather than on the sociopolitical radicalization that fuels fundamentalist formations.

Bush's charged rhetoric functions as a direct rationale for war crimes being undertaken right now in our names. I am sorry if saying things like that makes me seem "incensed," but I am hardly going to ignore the key facts constituting the rhetorical context for these utterances for fear that it makes me vulnerable to cartoonish mischaracterizations.

But just as significantly Bush’s rhetoric here functions as another plank in a constantly ramifying discourse that would misdirect global foreign policy analysis away from an emphasis on social outcomes that tends to suggest harm reduction and remediation strategies of the kind liberals incline towards (which is why they find “competence” arguments so compelling and fail to understand when non-liberals do not), instead toward strong moralist or identity formations (“Us/Them” formations) that suggest instead offensive military postures of the kind conservatives incline towards.

(This is a huge and separate discussion, but I would suggest very briefly that this misdirection is doubly appealing to neoconservatives because it facilitates welfare -- stealthed as neutral "Defense" -- for rich conservative constituencies via unfathomably vast military spending, and also because it nicely complements the threatened bearings of self that tend to gravitate toward conservative politics in the first place.)

Anyway, I find it frustrating that what you seem to take away from my initial comments is that I want to police or even ban people's word-use, when quite clearly (to me!) what I am doing is showing how the use of certain words suggests blatantly mistaken perceptions and judgments are in play. Now, you can describe my sort of rhetorical analysis as "magical thinking" or as quibbling or as some caricature of 70s feminist political correctness or what have you if you like, but I would gently suggest that this is possibly because you haven't spent a lot of time studying these particular sorts of mechanisms or taking them seriously? It should really go without saying, but it is only because I thought I shared a general sense of desired outcomes with people who read the blog in which the original exchange occurred that I offered a rhetorical critique (which is the field I was trained in) that implied ways in which outcomes I thought most there would likewise consider undesirable would be faciliated by the position expressed there. If I had thought people there actually desired these bad outcomes I was worrying about (which the unexpected defensiveness of some of the responses to my comments suggests must, curiously enough, be the assumption being made) I wouldn't have posted there in the first place, inasmuch as I usually don't waste my time talking to stupid or evil people unless I am getting paid for the privilege.


Martin Striz said...

Release your frustration:

Use your mouse to toss him around.

Tom FitzGerald said...

I'd like to echo these concerns by mentioning the obvious points that:

1. The closest thing to fascism in the Mideast has been the authoritarian, if not totalitarian, Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria.

2. The theocratic regimes and their friends (Iran, Saudi Arabia (and its U.S. enablers), Taliban Afghanistan, al Qaida, et alia) are quite disticnt from fascism.

3. Bush desperately needs to obscure the difference between Islamic theocratism and fascism as part of his efforts to keep bamboozling folks into believing that al Qaida and Saddam Hussein ever had anythinig but contempt for each other.

4. Bush also can't use the word "theocracy" to characterize al Qaida's aims because it would offend his Christian theocratist base, and might remind some people that Dominion Theologians have more in common with al Qaida than either does with Baathist authoritarians (or with the Nazi fascists that Prescott Bush's Standard Oil buddies used to do so much business with during World War II, come to think of it.)

Tom FitzGerald said...

Another little addendum:

Isn't "Islamofascism" as goofily imprecise a conflation as "Islamocommunist" would be to describe the same people?

De Thezier said...

Have any of you read Katha Pollitt's story, The Trouble with Bush's 'Islamofascism', which was posted August 26, 2006 on the AlterNet at ?