It’s fashionable these days to regard disruption as a new phenomenon. But it has been with us for eons. None more so than in the area of language.
Take the word fascist. As Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism (Allen Lane, 2004) wrote, “Fascism was born in Milan on Sunday, March 23, 1919.”
It was there that Benito Mussolini called his movement of Italian nationalists the Fasci di Combattimento — the fraternities of combat. Early fascism was a national socialist movement. It combined patriotism with radical social change (including women’s suffrage, votes for 18-year-olds and the eight-hour day).
Fascism is an accurate word to describe Mussolini’s dictatorship after World War I until shortly before the end of World War II. No other regime in the 20th century was fascist in the strict sense of the term, since no regime expressed a state ideology of fascism, not even General Francisco Franco’s right-wing authoritarian military dictatorship in Spain between 1939 and 1975.
Step forward to the 21st century and political language has been so disrupted that the concept of fascism has little meaning. As Michael Mann puts it in Fascists (CUP, 2004): “As a word in usage today, it appears largely as the exclamation ‘Fascist!’ — a term of imprecise abuse hurled at people we do not like.”
This definition best covers the word usage of human rights lawyer Greg Barns when interviewed by Hamish Macdonald on ABC Radio National Breakfast on Thursday. Discussion turned on the action of the Turnbull government in deporting convicted criminals, who were not Australian citizens or residents, to New Zealand where they were citizens or residents.
This Coalition policy, administered by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, has been criticised by the New Zealand government. New Zealand leaders are inclined to present themselves as kinder with respect to asylum-seekers, refugees and the like. But, on a per capita basis, Australia’s humanitarian intake is far more generous than that of New Zealand.
In any event, New Zealand’s perceived higher morality in this instance turns on the deportation of convicted criminals. On Thursday, Barns was objecting to the detention of a minor in an adult immigration centre pending deportation to New Zealand. It is not clear what offence the 17-year-old male committed in Australia. It is reasonable to assume that he was a perpetrator of a serious crime, in which case it is understandable that Dutton wants to deport the New Zealander. It is also understandable that a human rights lawyer such as Barns takes a different position.
He took exception to Dutton’s claim that the young man was delaying his departure by appealing to bodies such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court. From Barns’s point of view, the young man is merely exercising his rights under the law available to all claimants. That’s a fair argument. But not the language involved. Barns accused Dutton of possessing “fascist tendencies”. He added: “This is the sort of conduct you expect from authoritarian politicians in places like Hungary and Poland.”
It’s true that leaders of both nations are not left-liberals. But neither are they fascists in any reasonable sense of the term.
When Macdonald challenged Barns’s language, the latter simply claimed the minister had criticised the AAT on occasions and continuously had forced people to go to court to claim their rights. Moreover, according to Barns, “many lawyers” shared his view about Dutton. That’s it.
Seemingly proud of his use of abuse as argument, Barns advised Macdonald that he had used similar language with respect to Dutton on Twitter. It’s true. The human rights lawyer has depicted the minister as a “racist” and “demagogue” (January 2) and a “neo-fascist” (April 6). It seems, in Barns’s mind, Dutton has moved from being a neo-fascist to a fascist in three months. Barns also regards Australia as a “racist” nation “practising apartheid through its refugee program”. He runs the familiar refrain of the alienated leftist intelligentsia that he is “ashamed to be Australian”.
And now for a return to reality. If a lawyer had criticised Mussolini similar to the way Barns has criticised a cabinet minister, they would have been incarcerated and perhaps executed. Fascist Italy was not as murderous as Nazi Germany but it was no place for a critic of the regime.
If Australia is as racist and authoritarian as Barns maintains, you would wonder why so many asylum-seekers and immigrants want to settle here, and why many convicted foreigners want to remain. What’s missing from Barns’s advocacy is considered judgment.
In her recent book Fascism: A Warning (William Collins), Madeleine Albright is more considered. Even so, the former US secretary of state is no less alarmist. She defines a fascist “as someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have”. She does not demonstrate why this mindset is different from that of a communist regime, a military dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy. In fact, Albright’s warning is about Donald J. Trump, whom she describes as the “first anti-democratic president in modern US history”.
Yet the democratically elected Trump administration is acting within US law. The same is true of Malcolm Turnbull’s government in Australia, which bears no resemblance to any fascist dictatorship. There’s enough disruption going on without overturning accepted historical meanings.