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Oct 19, 2004 12:52 am

Hideous Coded Fragments

"Though we say that we cannot see the future, its conditions lie all around us. They are as if encrypted. We cannot read them because we lack the key (which will be in our hands only when it is too late to use it). But we see their coded fragments and must call them something. Many aspects of our own contemporary culture might be called premonitory shivers: panicky renderings of unreadable messages about the kind of society we are creating. Our dominating passion, after all, is to give life meaning, even if sometimes a hideous one." (Philip A. Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, p. 1)

Karl Rove is a political advisor to the president and his campaign. Expect dirty tricks.

George W. Bush campaigned falsly as a moderate and has never acted like one in office. Expect more.

Republicans, who have campaigned against homosexual rights at almost every turn and turned many a blind eye to attacks on relatives of Democrats, managed to use faux outrage at Kerry's mere mouthing of the name of a political operative who happens to be related to a candidate to obscure the fact that Bush can't win a debate to save his life.

Bush's favorite Supreme Court Justices are Scalia and Thomas: what if he appoints more like them? If he's elected, it's highly likely that the Senate will remain in Republican hands.

The NYTimes says that the US military is non-partisan. HNN commenters have asserted that Kerry's election would likely result in an exodus of career servicepeople (didn't they say the same thing about Clinton? Anyone remember what happened?), National Guard units are refusing orders due to safety concerns, and the Army's best training soldiers have now been detailed to Iraq not for training duty, but because we've used everyone else. Expect more trouble.

Fascism? I'm still waiting for someone to convince me we're wrong to make comparisons to pre-fascist situations. It can happen here, unless we don't let it: there is no 'process' or 'historical trend' or 'core value' that will stop it if individuals don't make real efforts.

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Maarja Krusten - 10/22/2004

I didn't read it as Ignatius looking for a direct public admission, but rather for nuanced metamessages which simply acknowledged the voters' concerns. Think Reagan or Clinton--they wouldn't have wasted debate time saying it's hard work being Prez but would have indirectly acknowledged voter anxieties. Smartphone post

Lloyd Kilford - 10/22/2004

I understand the distinction, and thank you for reminding me of it.

My personal take on things is that it is quite difficult (sometimes) to distinguish between "normal", authoritarian governments and governments which are beginning to look like fascist dictatorships. There's a blurred boundary between internment camps and concentration camps, for instance. I think that British policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was bad, but I'm not going to call them fascists for setting up internment camps.

I think that you are intelligent and honourable, and therefore I support your right to pursue this question, unhampered by government and unthreatened by populist demagoguery. I think I know the answer to the question you are asking, but that doesn't affect your right to ask it and to find your own answer (even if I think your answer is very wrong!)

[an aside: some people seem to like playing fast and loose with the denotations and connotations of English words. Here is an example from Noam Chomsky:

"a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level."

This looks to me like an attempt to say "corporations are mass murderers who want to take over the world" without quite saying that; the implications of fascism go way past authoritarianism and Chomsky knows that; he just wants to smear his opponents.]

Jonathan Dresner - 10/22/2004

One clarification: I've never said that Bush was a fascist.

It's not that simple. If it were, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

I try very, very hard to be moderate in my views, consistent in my principles and fair in my public presentations. I understand that this line of inquiry appears immoderate and unfair to some, but it is consistent with my understanding of both history and contemporary affairs and I will continue to pursue this question until I have a satisfactory answer.

Lloyd Kilford - 10/22/2004

I think it's a bit unfair to blame the militia/anti-government/etc loonies on Bush. I *think* that they view Bush as being dangerously left-wing and from their perspective (way out in the wilderness) he is very left-wing. They seem to oppose The White House in a non-partisan way (maybe if Badnarik wins then they will be a bit less hostile, but I don't know).

I also agree that it's a bad thing that Coulter and friends are not making matters any better by calling all liberals "traitors to the people" or similar things. *Most* Americans, of any party or none, are patriotic (in their own particular ways), and questioning the patriotism of a whole section of society is unfair and hurtful, and wrong.

However, we have had overheated rhetoric before. People (Emma Goldman, for instance) have been deported (in peacetime!) for saying "the wrong things". My personal favourite for rhetoric is the Sex Pistols singing "God save the Queen - the fascist regime". I can think of many ways to describe 1970s Britain, but "fascist" isn't actually one of them.

I had a look at Neiwert's site. It seems interesting, but in the comments to one of the entries there was the following wonderful comment:

"This is literally the last stand of the human race. If we don't destroy the Right, they WILL destroy US."

Now Neiwert does say "[i]t's important that the left not descend to the same mindset in response", but it is clear to me that hatred is not a right-wing monopoly. (Michael Moore?)

My personal fear is that calling the current regime fascist (even if you put words like "pseudo" or "emergent" or "neo" in front of it) will aid the rise (if there is one) of fascism. Most conservatives/right-of-centre people will (IMHO) say "Bush is not Hitler, because [list of reasons], therefore he is not a fascist, therefore anyone calling him a fascist is crazy". I think that you will drown out some of your more reasonable points (Bush's policy on X is wrong, his handling of Y is inept, ...) if you are not careful. You may be inoculating people against the fear of fascism.

It's your country, and your politics. I'm not going to tell you how to conduct your domestic political struggle, but I continue to believe that Bush is not a fascist.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/22/2004

Mr. Kilford,

As Mr. Morgan pointed out, I'm really interested in whether current American politics, particularly Republican party practice, is sufficiently similar to the practices of other pre-fascist states to be of serious concern. The David Neiwert link is to an extended series of articles chronicling a vast array of political and cultural practices which are shockingly similar to other pre-fascist cases and sometimes full-blown fascist practices.

When a Republican flack like Ann Coulter can get away with calling all Democrats liberal traitors -- no, precisely because she can -- I think fascism is a legitimate trope. You're right, we are not in a full-bore fascist state; but I don't see a lot of reason why we won't be in a few years unless we take these issues seriously now.

You place a lot of emphasis on 'domestic paramilitaries' and I agree that they don't exist. There is, however, substantial intimidation, violent action and even paramilitary organization on the far right, which is not directly associated with the Republican party but which certainly isn't voting Democrat.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/21/2004

There seems a tension in Ignatius' article. He states that Bush has learned, but has refused to aknowledge that he has learned, and then falls back on a curiosity -- that publicly aknowledging mistakes is necessary to learning. (If you don't believe me, read the article again, and you'll pick out the contradiction). Seems a bit confused, as well as confusing. Further evidence that the "confessional culture" that started at least with Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich, and finds its highest expression in Oprah, has firmly taken root. I wonder what would have been the result if Washington had had to publicly confess his errors in the midst of the Revoutionary War.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/21/2004

To be fair to Jon, he mentioned pre-fascist conditions (whatever they are) rather than full-blown fascism.

On another front, as a more serious answer to one of your previous questions, Derrida in "Letter to a Japanese Friend", not only refused to define deconstruction, but said any definition of what it is, or what it is not, would be at the least false. Makes it kind of hard for it to speak for itself.

Lloyd Kilford - 10/21/2004

I am a liberal and very much not a historian. I'm not even an American (although I did live there for two years, ending July 2004). However, I feel that I should defend Bush (against fellow liberals?!) against the charge of being a fascist. The world is not a sane place.

I can see several very important things that happened during the rise of fascism that - at least to my eyes - haven't happened in modern America, and don't seem *that* likely.

There aren't street gangs - Nazi or Communist - beating up members of the opposing side. Civil debate isn't flourishing in the USA, but it's not dead either.

There haven't been any racial laws enacted like those passed in Nazi Germany.

There are no giant concentration camps for journalists and intellectuals.

University professors have not been fired for being Jewish, Muslim, or any other religion. They haven't been intimidated *by their own students* into leaving, as happened in 1930s Germany.

The glorious leader has not cancelled the elections, or banned opposition parties from running.

The glorious leader's paramilitaries are not disrupting events run by opposition political parties.

I'm not even sure that the glorious leader *has* domestic paramilitaries.


I think that, if you are going to make the accusation, then you need harder evidence than "the President might appoint Supreme Court Justices that I don't like". Especially to convince the undecided.

Let me be blunt. I'm a *liberal* and I think that the accusation is ridiculous. It leads me to honestly question your political judgement. How do you think that conservatives will react?

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/21/2004

Well, Amen -- an honest Democrat. Finally somebody who will admit that Kerry had an ulterior motive vis-a-vis Mary Cheney, and then proceeded to lie about it.

I continue to think Bush is closer to moderate than you might imagine. He floated an amnesty program for illegal aliens, and has asked Congress to gut the most onerous anti-illegal immigrant provisions from proposed homeland security legislation (I had thought that nativism was a component of fascism). He passed the off road diesel provisions, which even the environuts give him credit for, and has embraced the Hudson River initiative.

You can find more moderate Republicans, for sure, but I think it goes beyond the evidence to say that he "has never acted like one".

Jonathan Dresner - 10/21/2004

Bush has moved more of the funding for social programs through religious hands than ever before, and removed quite a few restrictions on their activities. The AIDS initiative was proposed, but has been funded only partially and with strong ideological strings attached.

Expanding government is neither moderate nor radical nor conservative, in itself: it is the directions in which the government has expanded (and the directions in which it has shrunk, in personell and in power) which need to be examined. And the Bush administration has used every arm of government available to pursue a strong corporate and religious and partisan agenda.

Yes, it was the name of a political operative, an operative whose only value to the GOP is her sexuality and personal relation to party leadership. Kerry can't come out and say: this was a way of pointing on the utter hypocrisy of the GOP's campaigns for gay votes with evangelical positions. He should, but he can't.

And Bush has solved the military attrition problem, and the only outrage I hear is from Democrats. Figure that one out.

Maarja Krusten - 10/20/2004

It is a sign of how strange and different this election year feels, that commentators argue if the President is capable of learning from history and a book reviewer asks whether extreme religious belief affect some voters. Consider these two different links on disparate issues:
Counter-Errorism: Can Bush Admit What He's Learned in Iraq? By David Ignatius

Ignatius asks, "As the presidential campaign enters its final two weeks, one of thenagging questions is whether President Bush has learned anything fromAmerica's reversals in Iraq. The United States has made serious andcostly mistakes there, but does Bush see them? On that issue turns anevaluation of his fitness to lead the country for another four years."

Ignatius explains, "The British historian Christopher Andrew has argued that one of thedecisive strengths of Winston Churchill, generally reckoned thegreatest modern war leader, was that he learned from his mistakes. Hebungled badly during World War I, championing the disastrous assault onGallipoli in 1915 that was made with too few troops and too littlestrategic planning. He made other errors in his early career, fromeconomic policy to diplomacy, but he learned from them and became abetter leader. He never stopped growing."

He examines how Bush has handled questions about mistakes, and notes that dispite the President's refusal to admit error publicly, "when you examine his actual policies in Iraq over the past six months,they appear to reflect precisely the sort of learning from experiencethat the president refuses publicly to acknowledge." However, Ignatius concludes, "Has Bush learned anything from Iraq? Does he understand how badlythings have gone wrong there, and can he avoid making similar errors inthe future? In his determination to avoid any appearance of weakness,Bush often acts like a man who is impervious to such questions.Refusing to admit mistakes and thereby learn from them is a dangerousquality for a leader."

It is a sign of how anti-historical this campaign season feels, that readers are left to contemplate the role of voters who read the Left Behind series of religion-centered fiction. Consider the review in

"The White House won't disclose whether the president has read the Left Behind books and, although President Bush is proudly Born Again, he has been careful about professing specific religious beliefs. Whatever his personal theology, however, many of the policies of the Bush administration "strike prophecy believers as perfectly in harmony with God's prophetic plan," according to Paul S. Boyer, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education."

I know of no other presidential campaign during which such questions would even have been raised, much less taken seriously. 2004 certainly is an unsettling election year.

The book reviewer examines the startling beliefs covered in the Left Behind series. She asks, "Does prophecy beget policy in the Bush White House? Left Behind readers who believe that it does have many other administration policies they can point to. When President Bush rejected a treaty to curb global warming, he reinforced the premillennialist bias against environmental protection. (Why bother, since Jesus will be along soon to straighten things out?) And when he waged war in Iraq, prophecy believers viewed it as the prelude to Armageddon, a titanic conflict foretold in the Bible that will ultimately be fought in the Middle East. "

The reviewer concludes, "Such determined absolutism would seem hard to square with citizenship in a pluralistic democracy. For those who care about protecting freedom of religion, there is cause for alarm in the bullying certainties of Left Behind's pulpit fiction." No wonder it is hard to explain why some voters assess issues as they do.

That's all I have time for, running late this a.m., gotta set off for work

Maarja Krusten - 10/20/2004

This is a history news network, so I'll confine my comments to the archival aspects of what has happened in the post-Watergate era. You know the broken window theory, developed by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. The theory centers on disorder. If a window is broken and is not fixed, people walking by will start to think no one cares. No one seems to be in charge, although the problem initially seems isolated. But then, more windowns are broken, trash accumulates, troublemakers congregate, and the neighborhood succumbs to blight.

We all look at things through the prism of our individual experiences. For me, the fragility of post-Watergate reforms is reflected in the failure to release Nixon's records during his lifetime and in Bush's subsequent executive order on presidential records. I leave it to the rest of you to judge how other post-Watergate reforms have played out in Washington.

After Watergate, Congress passed a law which placed presidential records under public control. The law directed the Archives to reveal "the full truth" about Watergate abuses. I was employed by the Archives between 1976 and 1990 to screen Nixon's tapes and records for public release. I and my colleagues all were trained historians, with either an M.A. or a doctorate in in history.

Nixon sought to limit "abuse of power" tape disclosures to the sixty-three hours subpoenaed by the Watergate Special Prosecutor in 1973. But we Archives employees identified some 200 hours of Watergate related conversations which had been unknown to the Watergate Special Prosecutor. In December 1991, historian Stanley I. Kutler wrote to the National Archives, asking when its Nixon Presidential Materials Project planned to open Watergate portions of the Nixon tapes. Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries John T. Fawcett replied in January 1992 that all integral file segments relating to abuses of power in tapes and documents had been released. He implied that the Archives would eventually be opening a segment of tapes, but it would be ones recorded during Cabinet meetings.

Working level archivists were stunned by what Fawcett told Kutler in January 1992. The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act called on the Archives to disclose at the earliest reasonable date "the full truth about governmental abuses of power" known generally as Watergate. We knew full well that, although there were questions as to whether they constituted a "single integral file segment," some 200 hours of Watergate related conversations still Remained undisclosed to the public. In fact, in 1987 we had finished screening all 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes for public release.

On March 19, 1992 Dr. Kutler filed a lawsuit against the National Archives in federal court for public access to Watergate conversations (Kutler v. Wilson, Civ. A. 92-0662-NHJ). I testified in the lawsuit. My recorded testimony contains an assertion that I believed that had Mr. Fawcett responded differently to Dr. Kutler's initial inquiry, there might have been no lawsuit.

Soon after the Dr. Kutler filed his lawsuit, Nixon entered the litigation as intervenor. The National Archives was represented in court by lawyers from the Department of Justice (DOJ). That's right, by subordinates of the Attorney General, who is appointed by the President. So, a case involving access to Nixon's Watergate tapes was being argued in court by lawyers subordinate to George H. W. Bush, who had served as chairman of the Republican National Committee during Nixon's second term in officre.

In many of the court pleadings, DOJ took a position similar to Nixon's. One pleading described Nixon as having a "collaborative, consultative" relationship with the Archives. Little wonder then that working level archivists were left on their own to face Nixon's highpowered lawyers without proper support. Although a lawyer from DOJ sat next to me when I testified, I felt very much alone. Fortunately, I did ok (I later heard through a third party that Kutler's lawyers had said I was a "killer witness." )

DOJ's lawyers attempted to convince the court that as of 1992, the Archives had only completed a preliminary screening of all the Nixon tapes. But subpoenaed documents tell a different story. These show that beginning in 1982, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries James E. O’Neill (who died in 1987) and the director of NARA'S Nixon Project signed letters that informed Nixon’s attorneys on a periodic basis that “we have completed final review” of monthly segments of tapes, from February 1971 onwards. (The Nixon White House taping system was in operation from February 1971 until June 1973.) The Archives’ internal work plans referred to completion of “final” review of the tapes in 1987. Indeed, the Nixon Project’s Fiscal Year 1987 Annual Work Plan stated that “final archival review and technical processing of the White House tapes will be completed during the second quarter of FY 87.” During the 1980s, researchers were given informational hand-outs, which stated that “archival processing” of the tapes “will be completed in 1987.”

After Nixon died in 1994, the parties in the Kutler lawsuit worked out a settlement. The settlement spared DOJ from further twists and turns in attempting to explain why and how final processing turned into mere initial processing of the tapes. By and large, the information released to researchers by the Archives from Nixon's tapes between 1996 and 2004 has been the same information that my generation of archivists had marked for disclosure from those tapes between 1981 and 1987.

You've seen my article on HNN on Allen Weinstein's nomination as U.S. Archivist, which provides some context on the Nixon issues.. A letter from me published in the New York Times in December 2003 provides further context on the struggle to release records. See NYT Letter at

So, I found out as early as 1992 how ephemeral and fragile post-Watergate reform laws could be. It did not matter what the law said, if Nixon objected strenuously to disclosure, the Archives was unable to release historical information. So, I was not surprised when in 2001, soon after taking office, George W. Bush issued an executive order, strengthening the power of Presidents and their families to block disclosures under the Presidential Records Act (PRA).

Last week, U.S. News & World Report reported breezily that the potential release of some of the "20 million Clinton White House E-mails" by the Clinton Presidential Library reportedly "shook up a few in the Bush administration." The magazine reported,"'I don't want my E-mail made public,' said one insider. As a result, many aides have shifted to Internet E-mail instead of the White House system. 'It's Yahoo!, baby,' says a Bushie." Ignoring record keeping obligations under the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act, U.S. News treated the item as amusing gossip in its Washington Whispers column, giving it the title, ""It's Yahoo!, baby"

But consider how it would look if someone at a federal agency declined to use their official e-mail account and contacted co-workers only through AOL or Yahoo or Hotmail, in order to avoid the creation of official records or, perhaps, public accountability. There was no understanding on the part of U.S. News or the White House "insider" that government business recorded in e-mails falls under public control by statute. That's not to say it all is releasable, of course. But you have to wonder where the White House counsel, who should be advising people, is in all this.

The PRA, set forth in title 44 of United States Code, chapter 22, requires the President and Vice President to adequately record their official acts, maintain certain official records, and transfer custody of such records to the Archivist of the United States upon termination of their terms of office.

Pursuant to the PRA, both the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President are to implement records management controls and other necessary actions to ensure that presidential and vice presidential activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies are adequately documented and maintained. It also provides that presidential records shall be made available pursuant to subpoena or other judicial process and to either House of Congress, and prohibits destruction of records without prior concurrence of the Archivist and notification of Congress 60 days prior to disposal. The Archivist promulgates standards and guidance for implementation of PRA; these are contained in title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). This regulation defines criteria for access to and disposition of presidential records.

The news story reminded me of a New York Times article in 2001, which also raised questions about the type of advice being offered by White House counsel. President George W. Bush reportedly said he would not use a personal e-mail account at the White House as the information in it would be too vulnerable. The President explained to his friends and family: "'My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests,' Mr. Bush wrote. . . . 'Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace.'" (New York Times, March 17, 2001) The Times failed to note that under the Presidential Records Act, purely personal communications by Bush most likely would be protected from inappropriate disclosure. It would not be "looked at by those out to embarrass." However, the news item gave an early indication of how Bush seems to view records and those who seek access to them.

Viewed in terms of record keeping and public access to historical information, the first window in the neighborhood was broken when the National Archives was unable during Nixon's lifetime to comply with a statutory requirement to release "the full truth" about "abuses of governmental power". This posting has gone on long enough -- I leave it to HNN readers to consider how other post-Watergate reforms have fared, and what might have happened, had they been integrated better into governance. Would Dr. Dresner even be asking about coded fragments? I wonder.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/19/2004

Bush has never acted as a moderate? It seems to me that many of the social programs are intact, and even funded to a greater extent. Who was it that started an AIDS initiative in Africa? Was it that vibrating reed of empathy, Bill Clinton? (you know, the guy who stopped off in Rwanda for 40 minutes with the jet engines running, declared that we hadn't known what was going on there, and left a plaque behind). I think it was a guy named Bush.

While many complain Bush has never been moderate, conservatives are aghast that he has expanded government, expanded government spending, and shown no inclination to change any of that.

And what if Bush appoints more like Scalia? The sky will fall? The biggest champion of First Amendment rights and due process on the Court is Scalia.

And it wasn't the mere mouthing of a name of a political operative -- come on. Kerry seems to have realized he made a faux pas, of sorts, inasmuch as he has put out the fantastically laughable excuse that he was merely pointing out how strong families address the situation. Please. I expect a law school graduate, Class orator at Yale, and career politician to be able to lie better than that.

AS for leaving the military, I know people who did, having put in their 20. They merely retired. That "exodus" was covered by others willing to stay in, and by the downsizing of the military by a third. There indeed was another exodus, little reported. After Tailhook, Pat Schroeder and her buddies refused to promote anyone who even attended the convention, until an investigation cleared them of something they were not even accused of -- guilty until proven innocent didn't seem to stimulate the extraordinary sensitivities of the ACLU and civil liberties crowd. The Navy lost hundreds of aviators in mid-career, with tens of thousands of high performance aircraft flight experience. It didn't even take Clinton to do that.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/19/2004

Eco's definitions are pretty well in line with most historians' understandings of fascism, though there are usually a few institutional things that hang on there as well: one-party state, paramilitary violence, national projects of unity requiring massive investment (and state control) of resources (in Italy it started as public works, but most places it ends up as war).

Eco's definitions, though, are very much in line with what we are actually talking about, the pre-fascist or proto-fascist stage.

What's the point in talking about it as an historical event (actually, many historical events) if at some point there isn't a useful generalization we can apply?

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