A phrase to be careful with. To start, as always, with myself, I grew up in the Socialist Party and other such groups. I've spent a fair amount of my youth hanging around left-wing activists, agitating for one cause or another. But coming from a nice fluffy middle-class upbringing, there were always a few things that made me dubious, and one of those was a propensity amongst certain socialists to use 'fascist' as a general term for 'person who disagrees with me, is in my way, or happens to be wearing a police uniform or a suit'. To call the current government 'Tory scum', or the intellectual heirs of Margaret Thatcher, is perfectly acceptable to me. Calling them fascists always struck me as being insensitive, unregarding of history, and factually inaccurate. It's a tool to shut down debate, not to start it. But for a handful of NF nutcases, no-one wants to be identified as a fascist; even the BNP*.
To call someone a fascist is a fire-and-forget sort of insult. You don't have to explain why, because it's a word that stains. It's not used to disagree with someone, it's used to discredit them. So to brand a certain phenomenon 'emotional fascism', and then to say that it is both hysterical and closing down the debate, strikes me as a double standard somewhat. More than that, there's a quality to Hazelnut's node that troubles me. I don't mean to do a hatchet job on it; there are parts of it I agree with, and parts I don't. Views are nuanced, and I'll get into that. But there's a curious sort of tilting at windmills going on here, in particular with the business about the debate being closed down. It reminds me of nothing so much as people who rant about 'political correctness gone mad', in fact. People who say things like 'you can't even talk about immigration without being called a racist'. Well, no. The last I checked, freedom of speech was still something enjoyed in the United Kingdom, and no-one is stopping anyone from talking about it. The problem here, to my mind, is that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from criticism. If you say something about immigration that someone thinks is a bit racist, and they say so, that's not abridging your freedom of speech, that's disagreement. Even if it's a lot of people. There is no right not to be ostracised. So assuming for the moment that the phenomenon Hazelnut's describing exists to the extent he claims, and holding views contrary to 'emotional fascism' will make you unpopular... why does it merit being described as fascism, please? As I recall, historically fascists have relied less upon making their enemies unpopular and more upon making them dead. This, to me, shows a certain lack of perspective, especially when invoking the name of an ideology arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of people to describe a social tendency to which you want to feel superior.
This leaves me with three questions. Does this authoritarian tendency exist? To what extent? And most importantly; is it new? On the first, I'm dubious. Hazelnut does an excellent job of identifying some examples to tackle, however, so that seems a reasonable place to begin. The business about Diana, and the mass outpouring of public emotion at her death, is important, certainly. I won't argue that that kind of vicarious grief does seem to be more common now (and indeed then; 1997 makes it only comparatively recent), than it had been in the past. Certainly it was unsettling to see people in tears and leaving flowers over the death of someone they'd never known, who they'd only been familiar with because of who she'd happened to marry, and it seems like an easy line to draw from there to people tying flowers to lamp-posts at the scene of car accidents and other such displays of public sorrow. But I have two problems with this narrative. I don't think it was new, and I don't think it was spontaneous. Like it or not, Diana was a celebrity, and there will always be people who try to interpose themselves into the lives (and for that matter the deaths) of celebrities they identify with, or fixate upon. But a key part of how Diana became a celebrity was the media, in particular the tabloids. Functionally, this was one society lady who married a crunbling irrelevance of a British institution, and became rich and not at all powerful into the bargain. But she was young, attractive, and glamorous, and no-one wants to read newspaper articles about Princess Anne. So the media hounded her, ultimately to her death, and after that they picked over the bones like carrion birds. The Daily Express still gives her a front page headline every now and again. So when Diana died, a few people left flowers, and then it grew with the reporting of it. As a rule, I don't think people just decided to leave flowers. They saw the handful who did, repeated and repeated by media that clung onto it, and decided they should join in, and that's how it became acceptable. A small group of people, whose voices were bounced around the echo chamber just long enough and loudly enough for their ideas to catch on.
So what we have here, at least to my mind, isn't fascism but the media acting as a very specific sort of amplifier. Has that changed the way most people act? I'm more dubious. It's possible we've become less repressed about emotion, for better or for worse. Casting it as some sort of tyranny in which it's rebellious not to engage in these displays of public emotion, however, strikes me as unhelpful. As far as it goes, the rest of the examples Hazelnut cites are, well, yes, reprehensible. But also not new, I think. Legislating in response to individual tragedies or mass hysteria (witness the Mann Act in the United States, introduced after a panic about 'white slavery', or a lot of drug laws) is something that's been going on since Hammurabi, I suspect. To a certain extent, I think that has a lot to do with how poorly we as human beings evaluate risk, and our bias towards finding named, specific, exotic threats scarier than vague, everyday ones. Perhaps it's louder now, more obnoxious, but appreciably worse?
Even the misery memoirs aren't a modern invention. Obviously there is a demand, hence why WH Smith have a book section called 'tragic life stories'. It's perhaps become more acceptable to write about topics that used to be taboo, such as child abuse, but the fixation on other peoples' tragedies always struck me as human nature. In the 19th century US, there were more than a few poets cranking out verses for obituaries, accidents, disasters, and so forth, with some success. Certainly it was prominent enough for Mark Twain to parody it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the form of the poetaster Emmeline Grangerford, who writes thusly:
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.
They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.
Likewise, trials that are fought as much in the court of public opinion are scarcely a modern development. The mention of lynching there is another choice of words that strikes me as unfortunate, too. Given that lynching was a thing that happened, and in some parts of the world continues to, and represents sentiment winning out over the rule of law, it seems important to bear in mind that Casey Anthony was found not guilty on the basis of the evidence and arguments presented, in a fair trial where she had access to competent representation. Public outcry notwithstanding, I don't think she'll be lynched herself. And given that in 1931 Alabama, black men were being convicted and executed irrespective of the evidence, I think it's unsound to say that emotion driving court cases is a development we can link to the last thirty or forty years, or that it's in any real way worse now.
Perhaps I'm being uncharitable. There is much in Hazelnut's writeup that I agree with. Media-fueled public hysteria should be fought with facts and logic. Illiberal legislation should not be passed because of emotion. NGOs can be corrupt, as can politicians, and it behooves us to take a skeptical view of all sorts of things. I don't begrudge a good rant, either, because one of mine is in the first set of softlinks. But the central statement here, to my view, is this one:
'Emotional fascism is the end result of a process in the last thirty to forty years or so whereby people with dubious political, commercial, or moral agendas seek to reframe everything in the aspect of feelings and empathising at the expense of cold, hard logic and actually thinking about things'
I feel it's important to note that rationalism - the emphasis on logic, evidence and well-reasoned argument, whether it be in politics, in law, or wherever else, is a comparatively recent thing in human history in many ways. Granted, Aristotle didn't empathise his way to his theories about physics, but he also didn't experiment, which is why it took Newton to come up with a theory of how gravity works**. Not to suggest that everything prior to the scientific method was done on guesswork, but emotion and instinct playing key roles in how we perceive the world, and how we make decisions on how to act on it, have been the norm for millenia. Hence tilting at windmills. And reason has a tyranny all its own; witness Robert MacNamara, running the Vietnam War by calculus. It's not that we should stop trying to advocate for the use of reason, quite the opposite - if anything, what we need more of is science - but characterising sentiment and illogical actions as a kind of fascism that was never so bad fifty years before, well... it's unhelpful. More than that, it's a rather superior way to look at the world. It's very easy to ask why people aren't thinking, but they are, just in ways we may dislike. And if that's the case, the duty is to educate and to advocate for our positions, rather than dismissing people who believe differently out of hand. Because ultimately, if that's the course we take, reason is something that will lose out, in large part, because I don't think of it as 'emotional fascism'. I think of it as human nature, or failing that, society. And the thing about society is that it's big, and messy, and more than occasionally stupid. And you can change it, or retreat from it, or fight it, but the one thing you can never really do with society is to ignore it.
* I'm perfectly fine with calling the BNP fascists, because they are. But it helps nothing if you don't engage with the substance (or rather, the lack thereof) of what they're saying.
** That is still woefully inaccurate, but it's testable.