Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Defining and Naming Political Ideas

In the lead up to the American election and in its wake there has been considerable debate over labels, meanings, and how we use terms and language. It may be some bizarre combination of ignorance and knowledge of the past combines to result in tying ourselves in knots with definitions.

Before we jump into a more blatantly political side let's use writing about "Facebook news posts" as an example. In most media the false and misleading "news" posts propagated on Facebook has been labeled "fake news". While technically accurate it ignore our context. Fake news as a term has been closely associated with satirical programs like The Daily Show, This House Has 22 Minutes, and the Colbert Report. It communicates harmless mischief, purposefully exaggerating, or mocking. The fake news posts are actively misleading at best and bald-faced lies more often than not. There is a more accurate term for this - propaganda. Definition: "Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view." If anything the definition may be too soft, but far clearer. Why does the media hesitate to use this language? Is it because the word propaganda is associated with totalitarianism and the twentieth century?

After the Cold War and the ascent of liberal democracy and neo-liberalism ideological labels seemed to matter far less. In North America words like communist, totalitarianism, fascism and even socialism, liberalism, and conservatism became fuzzier, ill-defined and less relevant. In Canada the differences between our "left" and "right" became marginal. Then things seemed to change.

In the American mainstream a growing number of politicians expressed views and positions beyond the centrist consensus but we seem ill-prepared to label these movements. Take the Tea Party. I have never heard a satisfactory explanation of their ideology aside from the vague "right-wing", "conservative" (absolutely inaccurate), and "populist". Populism comes up a lot, but it is not a set of policies/ideology. Politicians from Rob Ford to Tommy Douglas have been called populists.

This language barrier has resulted in problems as a culture when discussing these times. Recently the media has avoided calling a Nazi sympathizer, who says "Hail Trump", and receives the Roman/Nazi salute from the audience calling him a Nazi... because why? Because Nazis are a thing of the past, right? 

I do not like the growing use of the term "alt-right" because it too has a fuzzy, imprecise definition. It really just means far-right, or radical right-wing. As I wrote immediately after the election Trump and his supporters may be best understood as anti-liberal. I think there is a growing case to call the Trump's movement's radical element American fascism. To be clear that is not descriptive of all of those who voted for the Republicans. Speaker Paul Ryan is not suddenly a fascist because he will try to work with Trump's presidency. As political cultures we need to come up with accurate terminology and language to discuss our politics. Right now we are either in denial or wandering around in the darkness. There are going to be times when the New Right, in whatever country, will resemble normal governments, but it is important to call out when they use nationalism, authoritarianism and jingoism to impose harmful policies.  

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