I’d love to do the usual Mormon-ish post on this or that issue related to history or doctrine or culture, but I just can’t do that this week. Election Day is just seven days away. It’s like if there’s a Category 6 hurricane looming just off the coast and it’s going to make landfall in your town, you just can’t think or talk or plan about anything else until it passes through. So here’s another post about Hurricane Donald and how it might affect you and your Mormon life. (And if you’re worried about Tropical Storm Biden, same concerns as discussed here.) Let’s talk about another political book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018) by Jason Stanley, a philosopher on the faculty at Yale. His ten chapters are something like a ten-point checklist describing fascist politics, but which apply to any form of extreme politics, whether of the left or the right. At the end of the post we’ll get to the Mo app (Mormon application), asking again whether the newly resurgent extremist political rhetoric and practice we’re seeing in America is bleeding over into LDS rhetoric and practice.
A reminder before I launch into the checklist. Remember, the big distinction here is between extremist politics and the normal give and take politics of a healthy democracy, the politics of winning and losing relatively fair elections, the politics where political opponents are not political *enemies* and you might very well be working with those opponents next month to pass or amend a piece of legislation. It’s the contrast between a state where speaking out against the government might get you arrested and thrown in jail versus free speech and a free press. Okay, let’s look at the checklist, taken largely from the ten chapter titles in the book.
The Mythic Past. Fascist politics (hereafter, “FP”) idolizes an ethnic or racial or religious or cultural form of the good old days. Here’s a quote from page 3.
Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past tragically destroyed. Depending on how the nation is defined, the mythic past may be religiously pure, racially pure, culturally pure, or all of the above. But there is a common form to all fascist mythologizing. In all fascist mythic pasts, an extreme version of the patriarchal family reigns supreme, even just a few generations ago.
Propaganda. FP is almost never publicly transparent about its true goals, because if expressed clearly most citizens would find them objectionable.
The role of political propaganda is to conceal politicians’ or political movements’ clearly problematic goals by masking them with ideals that are widely accepted. A dangerous, destabilizing war for power becomes a war whose aim is stability, or a war whose aim is freedom. Political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends.How Fascism Works, p. 24
Anti-Intellectual. FP devalues education and experts.
Intelligent debate is impossible without an education with access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education, expertise, and linguistic distinctions are undermined, there remains only power and tribal identity.How Fascism Works, p. 36
Unreality. FP twists ideals and attacks or rejects previous sources of facts and information.
Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual, or perhaps a political party. Regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space. A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence.How Fascism Works, p. 57
Hierarchy. In liberal democracies of our era the ideal is full citizenship and equality before the law, “gradually encompassing people of all races, religions, and genders, to name a few examples” (p. 78). FP instead exploits the dark side of human nature and social groups in which some are more equal than others.
Fascist ideology, then, takes advantage of a human tendency to organize society hierarchically, and fascist politicians represent the myths that legitimate their hierarchies as immutable facts. Their principle of justification is nature itself. … The natural law allegedly places men over women, and members of the chosen nation of the fascist over other grouping.How Fascism Works, p. 80
Five More Features. You get the picture. The other five characteristics are Victimhood (We’re the real victims here!), Law and Order (They’re all criminals, and we need to defend ourselves!), Sexual Anxiety (We need to protect our wives and daughters from them!), Sodom and Gomorrah (They’re all sexual deviants or homosexuals!), and Laziness (“They” are just lazy, corrupt criminals scheming to get money without working for it, through thievery or welfare programs!).
All of these features come through in the language FP uses to talk about “us” and “them.” The ideology or worldview that FP embraces (which come in a variety of flavors) uses the items on the checklist to glorify “us” and to denigrate “them.” Here is how Stanley, the author, summarizes the whole tactic:
The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a disctinction between “us” and “them,” based in a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them,” and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions.”They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). … “We” are industrious and law-abiding, having earned our freedoms through work; “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt, and decadent. Fascist politics traffics in delusions that create these kinds of false distinctions between “us” and “them,” regardless of obvious realities.How Fascism Works, p. 187
One more paragraph on politics, then we’ll get to the Mo app. You would think that the spectre of a national pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands Americans and is still raging would result in some closing of the ranks, some sense of national unity to fight this challenge together, some softening of the “us” versus “them” rhetoric. Alas, politics has triumphed. This was certainly not inevitable, even in an election year. There’s a chance that the results of the election will change the path we’re on in which the rhetoric and practice of US politics continues to move away from the norms of centrist democratic politics and toward “fascist politics” as described in more detail by Stanley in the book. Let’s hope. I voted yesterday, dropped my ballot in the county lockbox. In America, we can still throw the bums out.
Politics versus Religion. It would be improper to take these ten features of FP and apply them willy-nilly to how a corporation or an army or a church is run. There is a certain degree of top-down authority that has to function in any organization. In many situations, someone has to lead the meeting, set an agenda, make a decision, or give an order. But a healthy and well-functioning organization of any type needs to act on accurate information, not wishful thinking, and get feedback from lower-level employees or members about what’s working and what isn’t. Countries led by dictators who don’t want to hear any bad news or ideas that differ from their own generally go into decline in a few short years. Organizations with leaders who show the same tendencies, who shoot the messengers and shut down input from down the organization or outside it, likewise do not prosper for long.
Without overstating the comparison, let me just say it is disturbing how many of the distinctive features of FP seem to have echoes in how the Church functions. There is an LDS mythic past, whether some earlier Zion or the City of Enoch where everyone got along famously and never disagreed because everyone was somehow white and delightsome and orthodox. LDS rhetoric often sounds like a religious version of political propaganda, cloaked in ideals but pursuing more mundane financial or institutional goals. “Anti-intellectual” … I don’t even have to explain. LDS racial doctrine was clearly a form of social and religious hierarchy, with phony and delusional justifications put forth to justify those distinctions that barred some from full LDS citizenship, access to the priesthood and the temple. In somewhat softer terms, the Church now even agrees that earlier justifications embraced by leadership and lay members alike were phony. Victimhood: LDS narratives never miss a chance to talk about Haun’s Mill but conveniently avoid the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I could go on.
Conclusion. Hey, this is self-criticism. As a church, we can do better. Our national politics is headed in the wrong direction and is taking on more and more of the features of FP. That might bleed over to how LDS leaders and rank and file members act and speak, or it might not. Here are some questions for discussion. Is the Church headed in the wrong direction or the right direction? Is the history presented in our textbooks and manuals more factually transparent and accurate, or does it promote our mythic past and choose to present only facts that fit? Is “all are alike unto God” just a PR slogan or has it really changed LDS practice at the general and local level? Is the “us” versus “them,” or “the Church” versus “the World,” just a rhetorical habit or do Mormons really think and act using those categories and distinctions? Unreality: Is there an LDS informational space that invites facts and engages with real issues? Or does all such discussion get pushed outside the confines of the Church?
Final words, then I look forward to your comments. I have a legitimate fear for the future of my country, but this is a tough time and it’s hard to be optimistic. Things could get better or things could get worse. We might muddle through this time of troubles or we could have fighting in the streets. I have more hope for the Church, full of good people, only some of whom embrace crazy ideas. For every Harold B. Lee there’s a Spencer Kimball waiting in the wings. In the long run, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I wish I could do more to bend it sooner rather than later. God bless America … sooner rather than later.