The Carolingian Renaissance, Rhetorically Speaking

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There’s a very old and tired joke among historians that goes: There were only 3 things wrong with the Holy Roman Empire — it wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, and it wasn’t an empire. ba-DUM-ching

The point of the joke, of course, is that the name of the thing had nothing to do with the nature of the thing. Charlemagne, who came up with the name, wanted to aggrandize himself and reinforce in people’s minds the power of his kingdom. The best way to do that was to identify it with the biggest, baddest empire Europe had ever known — the Roman — and with the biggest, baddest, only true religion — Catholicism.

The point of the name “Holy Roman Empire,” thus, wasn’t to describe Charlemagne’s rule. It was to strengthen Charlemagne’s rule; by making it seem bigger, older and more powerful than it was.

Lately there’s been a renaissance in Carolingian rhetorical sleight-of-hand. If pink is the new black, fifty is the new forty, and awake is the new asleep, then “Islamofascism” is the new “Holy Roman Empire.” It’s a name designed not to describe the thing named, but to strengthen it in the hearer’s mind; to make it seem bigger, badder, and more threatening than it is.

See, there are only 2 things wrong with Islamofascism: it isn’t Islamic, and it isn’t fascism.

The latest defense of the term comes from that crusty contrarian, Christopher Hitchens. Quoth Hitch:

The most obvious points of comparison would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. (“Death to the intellect! Long live death!” as Gen. Francisco Franco’s sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined “humiliations” and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual “deviance”—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.

Here’s the problem with all that: there’s nothing specifically Islamic about it. One could say exactly the same things of the brand of Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity we see today in America, and be equally correct:

  • It is a cult of murderous violence, in that it revolves entirely around the crucifixion of Christ (witness reaction to Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for an understanding of just how central the violence qua violence is), to the almost complete exclusion of the life of Christ.
  • It exalts death — Christ’s, the believer’s, and the world’s.
  • It despises the life of the mind, except as it is devoted to religious subjects (the same exception is true of radical Islam).
  • It hates modernity, except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons.
  • It is bitterly nostalgic for the past glories of Christendom, where Christianity reigned over both the sacred and the profane.
  • It is obsessed with the humiliations of “secularism,” especially in the Supreme Court, and thirsty for revenge.
  • Okay, here’s a difference. It is schizoid on the Jews. However, it makes up for it by being paranoid about absolutely everyone else — everyone outside the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, Freemasons included.
  • It could not be any more inclined to leader worship, nor could it lay greater stress on the power of one great book.
  • It is all about sexual repression.
  • It enforces the subjugation of women wherever it can.
  • It regards art and literature as decadent and degenerate (often encoded as “elitist”).
  • It would absolutely burn books and destroy museums if it could get away with it.

Thus, there’s nothing Hitch says of “Islamofascism” that couldn’t also be said of the American Christians who have held sway over one of our two major parties for the past fifteen years. Thus, nothing he describes is in any way particular to Islam.

Perhaps his point in the quoted paragraph is to justify the “fascism” part of “Islamofascism.” That would explain why there’s nothing specifically Islamic about what he describes. That would make the meaning of the word something like “fascism when practiced by Muslims”; and, by logical extension, it would make “Christofascism” the proper word for “fascism when practiced by Christians.” He hints at this elsewhere in his article, in reference to various World War II-era European political movements. Neither he nor anyone else on the Anglo-American right ever uses the word “Christofascism,” however. They certainly never call the Religious Right by that term. (It’s possible Hitchens would. To my knowledge, however, he never has.)

Regardless, the quoted paragraph (which is the heart of his defense of the term “Islamofascism”) doesn’t even accurately describe fascism. Under a more accurate definition of “fascism,” neither the practices of radical Muslims nor those of radical Christians qualify as fascism, except in quite rare instances. I can lay out my argument on that, if anybody’s interested. For now, though, since this post is already way long, I’ll skip it.

Besides, as others have noted, I don’t think Hitchens or anyone else promoting the use of this term is particularly interested in whether it’s precisely accurate as a description of the multifarious phenomena they apply it to. Accurate description is not their goal. Fear is.

Like “Holy Roman Empire,” “Islamofascism” is a term calculated for psychological effect, not semantic precision. It’s calculated to scare you. That is its only purpose. It uses the word “fascism” to draw up all those instantaneous, pre-rational, negative reactions we have to that word because we associate it with Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and prefixes it with “Islamo-” to tell us who to dump all those negative connotations on.

Are those associations appropriate? No. They’re not. But they’re politically useful.

Politically radical Islam and the people and entities pushing it represent no threat comparable to that presented by Hitler’s Germany. By comparison, politically radical Islam is tiny in number of soldiers, tiny in amount of weaponry, tiny in manufacturing capacity, tiny in technological capacity, tiny in material resources, tiny in intellectual resources, and tiny in economic output. It’s also absolutely plagued by murderous infighting. America, meanwhile, is many orders of magnitude larger in all those categories (except manufacturing capacity) than we were at the start of WWII.

Politically radical Islam represents in no way a threat comparable to that of the German fascists.

It’s hard to scare people by saying that, though. Saying that gins up no support for military actions in the Middle East. Saying “Islamofascism” does. “Islamofascism” scares people. That’s why the term is being pushed so hard by many on the American and British right. Not because it’s an accurate description of reality.

The accurate, descriptive term for language used in this way is “propaganda.”

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7 Responses to “The Carolingian Renaissance, Rhetorically Speaking”

  1. captmidknight Says:

    JU
    Given your detailed and quite impressive analysis of the gap between the impression of Radical Islamists conveyed by the term “Islamofascism,” and their actual strength and capabilities, would it not be fair to say that they have been extremely successful in using the natural tendency of the American and Western media to focus on bad news and disasters to inflate their image as “Holy Warriors” within the Moslem world as well as to spread panic in the West all out of proportion to their actual effectiveness? It seems to me that the Islamic propagandists are using fear with even greater success than we are.

    I’m not arguing with your contention that the term “Islamofascist” is used more as a propaganda tool than to strictly convey reality. The people who coined and use the term may indeed be exaggerating the threat in hopes of generating more support for unpopular policies. If so, they are also providing the bad guys with a windfall as well. Combine the “propaganda”style use of terms like “Islamofascism” with the type of reporting done by most of the media, and you have a very nice “force multiplier” for the terrorists. The old saying is still true:

    “An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.”

    If you mean to suggest that, by using such things as the inaccurate labels to generate support, we may actually be helping the terrorists more than ourselves, I might agree.
    Actually, they may not consider the term “Islamofascist” as much of an insult, since most of the Arab and/or Islamic countries got along pretty well with the Nazis, during and after the war, sharing a common enemy as they did.

    Finally, propaganda, like torture – however distasteful you find them – has a history as long as civilization. As for propaganda, nothing is going on now that wasn’t going on – government sanctioned – in 1944 or 1918, or 1898, or 1864 or 1848 or 1776. Nor is it limited to war issues. There’s plenty of propaganda being put out by various groups today – the Environmental/Global Warming crowd comes to mind.

    Sorry. Left or Right; Democrat or Republican; Conservative or Lib; Religious or Secular; propaganda is hear to stay for one simple reason: It usually works, at least in the short term.

  2. urbino Says:

    I would’ve thought that, if it accomplished nothing else, my discussion of Charlemagne would at least head off any notion that I thought the American right invented propaganda a week ago Thursday.

    Propaganda works best when nobody identifies it for what it is.

    would it not be fair to say that they have been extremely successful in using the natural tendency of the American and Western media to focus on bad news and disasters to inflate their image as “Holy Warriors” within the Moslem world as well as to spread panic in the West all out of proportion to their actual effectiveness?

    In all honesty, Cap’n, and I mean this in complete sincerity, I don’t understand how anybody — anybody — can talk about people inflating the image of radical Islam or spreading panic about it out of all proportion to the reality, without the Bush administration leaping to the top of their mind at twice the speed of light. I mean, really. This is the Mushroom Cloud Gang. Generating fear of radical Islam is how they make their living. Literally. No “existential threat” from Islam to scare people with, no second Bush term, no continued funding of the Iraq War, no Gitmo, no Patriot Act, no Military Commissions Act, no Protect America Act, no wild expansion of executive authority, etc.

    If I had a nickel for every time Pres. Bush or one of his proxies said “9/11 changed everything,” I’d be rich enough to buy the next election for my candidate of choice. (Throw in a nickel for every time Rudy Giuliani has invoked 9/11, and I could start my own country.)

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you about the media. But Wolf Blitzer only has influence. George W. Bush has power. More power than any other single person in the world. He’s the decider. He’s got the bully pulpit. He sets the terms of debate.

    If the soup is bad, the primary problem is the chef, not the guy working the phone.

    As for the terrorists themselves, I doubt they much care what we call them; so long as we’re talking about them, they’ve achieved their purpose.

  3. urbino Says:

    Serendipity.

    From the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, via TalkingPointsMemo:

    Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday.

    Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.

  4. captmidknight Says:

    JU said:
    “As for the terrorists themselves, I doubt they much care what we call them;”
    ________

    Neither do they much care who’s President or Vice President or Speaker of the House or Majority Leader of the Senate. Neither the personalities who come and go in our government nor their conduct while in office seem to affect their aims, only their tactics. They were happily blowing up buildings, hijacking airliners, and killing Americans and others before “Dubya” was trading baseball players in Texas, or Bill was chasing interns around the Oval Office, and I see no indication that their aims will change regardless of who comes in to take over 14 months from now.

    You aren’t very happy with how the current administration has conducted itself – I think I got it. In many ways, neither am I. They are using propaganda to generate fear in order to further their policies – I got that too.
    Just because some may use – and maybe even exaggerate – the threat for their own ends does not, however, mean that the threat isn’t still real. Whether their actions are used for propaganda or not, there really is a relatively small but fanatically dedicated group of people whose highest goal is to destroy us.
    Even if this administration has, to reluctantly quote Al Gore, “played on our fears,” they don’t scare me nearly as much as the person who is eager to strap a vest full of C-4 and ball bearings on himself or even a child, if it gives them a chance to kill me or my family in the process.

    Criticize this administration, or the next, from the roof tops – it is, after all, part of your rights – but we need to find a way to identify false fears while still acknowledging real ones.

  5. urbino Says:

    they don’t scare me nearly as much as the person who is eager to strap a vest full of C-4 and ball bearings on himself or even a child

    And I guess this is where we ultimately differ on this issue. I’m just the opposite.

    I see a much greater threat to my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the kind of state Bush-Cheney, et al., have built. I’m more prepared to take the risk of encountering a suicide bomber than I am to take the risk of being secretly, indefinitely imprisoned by my own government on the say-so of a single person (of any party).

    History tells me states like the latter do far more damage to far more people than fanatical guerrillas do.

    They were happily blowing up buildings, hijacking airliners, and killing Americans and others before “Dubya” was trading baseball players in Texas

    Agreed. (As were Americans like Tim McVeigh, btw.) There is nothing new about any of this. So why is our President doing the things he’s doing, and why is he saying he has to do them because “9/11 changed everything”?

    I just don’t get that. 9/11 doesn’t change anything; 9/11 has no agency. The only people who can change anything is us; 9/11 changes only what we — America — let it scare us into changing. Otherwise, 9/11 is nothing; a tragic, immoral, but completely futile gesture.

    ISTM that is how a strong nation would react to 9/11 — as opposed to overreacting, declaring that it “changes everything,” and trying to actually change everything. I mean, really? One militarily insignificant attack changes everything? What kind of country is that true of? Certainly not a strong one.

    That’s why I resonated so strongly with Andrew Sullivan’s statement that Pres. Bush has a weak person’s notion of strength.

  6. captmidknight Says:

    JU said:
    And I guess this is where we ultimately differ on this issue. I’m just the opposite.
    I see a much greater threat to my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the kind of state Bush-Cheney, et al., have built. I’m more prepared to take the risk of encountering a suicide bomber than I am to take the risk of being secretly, indefinitely imprisoned by my own government on the say-so of a single person (of any party).
    ________
    History certainly furnishes plenty of examples of totalitarian states that have denied “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to it’s citizens. They are, in fact, the rule. Nations throughout history that provided even modest amounts of personal freedoms are the exception. It’s hard for us, who were born and raised here – and think that our situation is the norm – to truly appreciate how rare our country is, and how easily our revolution could have gone the way of the French and almost all the others – but that’s for another post.
    I guess the main reason that I don’t see the Bush/Cheney administration as the danger that you do is that I understand that they are transient. For better or worse, they will be gone in 14 months and another group will take their place and, if history is any guide, immediately begin dismantling the parts of their work they object to. If one thing is clear, it’s that there are a lot of folks out there who can’t wait to get started. OTOH, you might be surprised at some of the Bush/Cheney items that get quietly retained by the very folks that are now condemning them. Its funny how, once you actually get in power, your outlook can change. We’ll see.
    You know that past administrations have enacted far more draconian measures in times of war or other emergencies, but they’re gone now, as are most of measures. It may very well be that this tension between rival factions and the periodic movement of power from one side to the other is the major reason that we are still here after all this time. It’s no guarantee for the future, but it gives me hope.
    There’s always the chance that, in spite of the tremendous inertia in our political system and National government, some emergency might come along that could be taken advantage of by a demagog from the Right or the Left. We’ve seen it happen in other countries in recent memory. If such a thing does happen, history says that they will come for dissenters and the educated early on. Such a thing could make the times of Bush/Cheney seem like the good old days. I think it was Einstein who said “everything is relative.” Lets hope we don’t have to find out.

    JU’s probably tired of playing pitch and catch with me … Next!

  7. urbino Says:

    I guess the main reason that I don’t see the Bush/Cheney administration as the danger that you do is that I understand that they are transient.

    As are terrorist enemies.

    Today’s terrorist enemies are yesterday’s allies and freedom fighters. Saddam was our ally all through the 80s. The mujahadin in Afghanistan were our allies and were portrayed as heroic in American news reports all through the 80s. We were all rooting for them.

    Then the 90s rolled around and we didn’t like them anymore and they didn’t like us anymore.

    Bush/Cheney is no more transient.

    The ideology they represent and enacted continues to be widely supported on the right. If either of the 2 leading GOP candidates, Giuliani and Romney, are elected, they will continue along the Bush/Cheney line. That’s the very thing they’re running on. It’s virtually their entire platform.

    So it’s not at all clear that any of the damage Bush/Cheney have done will be undone by the next administration. Or that the administration after that won’t redo it all. Bush/Cheney and their supporters have legitimized the imperial presidency; it’s going to be with us now for a long, long time.

    you might be surprised at some of the Bush/Cheney items that get quietly retained by the very folks that are now condemning them

    I wouldn’t be the least surprised by that, actually. That’s part of my concern.

    You know that past administrations have enacted far more draconian measures in times of war or other emergencies

    There are several problems with that statement:

    1) It is circular. It assumes the very thing under dispute — that there actually is an emergency, as opposed to just the rhetorically crafted appearance of one.

    2) Assuming there really is an emergency, it seems to just accept as given that the current “draconian measures” are both necessary and appropriate to that emergency.

    3) It is highly dubious that measures enacted by past administrations were “far more draconian” than Pres. Bush’s [claimed and acted on] authority to, by sheer fiat, imprison a citizen at any time, for any length of time, without trial, without a lawyer, without appeal, and entirely in secret.

    4) All of the measures to which Bush and his supporters point as precedent for his draconian measures have long been regarded as huge and tragic mistakes — as failures by those earlier presidents.

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