The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in many regions, including the US and some European nations, has certainly exposed complacency, mis-truths, incompetence, and bad decisions, to say the least. However, despite Elon Musk’s recent loose use of language, the word “fascism” has conventional meanings and associations, about serious topics, most of which are not usefully applied to the current crisis (accepting that raising controversy sometimes provokes needed debates).
Europeans have direct familiarity with recent varieties of real fascism — the word owes much of its force to its explicit use as a badge of identity by Mussolini and Franco in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s not much agreement on a formal definition of fascism per se beyond being a negative extension of authoritarianism, often including nationalism and suppression of debate and critical reasoning, verging towards absolutism. But for Europeans, the most chillingly clear association is between Hitler’s brand of fascism and the accompanying large-scale genocide, taking millions of lives.
Musk’s recent use of the term “fascism,” though used casually, is uncomfortably close to doublespeak for Europeans (and some Americans), since the policies of isolation-at-home have had the intention (at least) of preventing a surge of potentially millions of deaths, and reducing the inevitable sacrifice of frontline medical workers.
Fascism and the Memory of Genocide
The millions of deaths at the hands of Fascist Germany under the Nazis are a particularly acute and recent example of genocide, and a genocide that continues to be remembered and widely taught to new generations. But the human journey has been painted red with innumerable significant genocides and related atrocities, many of which are also comparatively recent, but which are too often effectively erased from mainstream consciousness, for political expediency and moral posturing.
Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn. Image credit: US Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons
Genocides frequently accompanied European colonialism, including colonization of “the new world.” Victims included the peoples of the Caribbean, Arawaks, Aztecs, Powhatan, Pequots, Narragansett, and Lakota, amongst countless others too numerous to adequately memorialize here. The numbers of native peoples killed defy comprehension and are hard to accurately account for, with estimates varying from tens of millions and up:
“[T]he shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.” (McKenna & Pratt 2015)
Much of this history has been effectively erased from the consciousness of the peoples occupying these lands today, even in “progressive” societies like contemporary California. “Columbus Day” is still a celebrated official national holiday in many states of the USA, although there have been some recent moves to rename the holiday in other states. Changing the name “America” from its derivation from a European imperialist cartographer and explorer may be a more intractable problem, though Abya Yala has been suggested by some of the region’s native inhabitants.
California’s Manifest Destiny
I attended an anthropology colleague’s undergraduate class at USC in 2015, which reviewed a brief history of the native peoples of the California region, from prior to the US occupation in 1846, through incorporation into the USA in 1850, and subsequently. Over this period, tens of thousands of native peoples who had lived in the region for generations were either murdered or enslaved. This included the enslavement of thousands of children, and the rape and murder of women. In an early example of doublespeak, many of these atrocities were committed under the auspices of the California State Legislature’s 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.
At the end of the anthropology class, the professor asked for a brief show of hands of which of the 60+ students were aware of this history of their own home state prior to that day’s class. No hands were raised.
California Coastline. Image credit: Anne Kathrin Bopp via Unsplash
My colleague later explained to me that the historical reality of this relatively new state is simply not taught to Californians, as is also the case in much of the rest of the US. Thankfully, some initial steps are now being taken to address this ignorance, at least in California. In June 2019, Governor Newsom issued an apology to Native Americans, saying:
“California must reckon with our dark history. … California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history. … It was genocide … that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”
The state is now in the process of setting up a “truth and healing council” (along the lines of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission) to recognize and document past atrocities and injustices (many of which continued at a US federal level until the 1960s), rather than keeping them erased. New Zealand is further down the path of attempting to make reparations for past wrongs than most other settler colonies. Perhaps California can learn something from the Antipodean nation.
Human Manifest Destiny and Ecological Destruction
The human journey has been beset by large-scale organized violence for millennia. From the origins of settled agriculture, the resulting stores of concentrated contestable resources, the surplus food to feed dedicated militaries, and populations outgrowing their farmlands and expanding outwards, such issues have fueled this long chapter of human history. In a regime of expansionism, without coordination and cooperation between peoples, contestation, encroachment, violence, and destruction are almost inevitable.
Since the end of WWII, international forums — however flawed — have existed for attempting to resolve conflicts between peoples, but these forums are not always widely supported. The inclusion of old European imperialist societies of the UK and France on the UN security council has not helped that forum’s international credibility, especially when India, with a population some 20× larger than either, is excluded. The UK, meanwhile, whilst less directly involved in violent imperialism than in the past, profits from its increased weapons sales around the world, often unlawfully, second in scale only to the US’s profiteering in this regard.
The US’s approximately 800 military bases around the world — more than any other nation in history — combined with above weapons sales suggest that the human story remains deeply entrenched in the era of belligerence, or the threat of belligerence, despite superficial posturing about peace and democracy.
Even where the expansion of human societies and activities do not entail violence towards other peoples, they still often entail encroachment upon or destruction of the homelands of other species (and/or their pollution, compartmentalization, and other depredations). The ongoing extinction of the earth’s ecosystems and species is a consequence, along with the fueling of the climate crisis.
Let’s hope this cooling off period that has been entailed by the COVID-19 crisis encourages greater reflection and humility, and an appetite for factfullness and perhaps even some hard truths.
If you’re based in California, please weigh in on the current state of consciousness (or basic education) about the history of the region.