Rot – Part 19

The word, “fascism,” had been roiling my brain for a few days before reading Perry Anderson’s essay, since I’d been thinking that, although I’ll be turning 60 next year, it’s only recently, living in Greece, that I’ve realized—by which I mean, felt in my bones—that fascism is not so much political disorder as existential regress and, so, psychological flight. Wilhelm Reich was right about one thing: fascism is more self-repression than political oppression—or, rather, the former leads to the latter. Which explains why, as Robert Paxton wrote several years ago in The Anatomy of Fascism, it exists at a primary level “within all democratic counties—not excluding the United States” (as in the Kulturkampfen of the last several decades fought with delirious abandon by the Christian right).

Still, by all appearances, political fascism is much less of a threat to the world in this first decade of the twenty-first century than what used to be called—way back when, in the Sixties—the fascism of everyday life, which, while as notoriously difficult to define as its broader, sociopolitical namesake, is very like obscenity: we know it when we see it. Television “news,” for example (whether Fox or MSNBC, the method of intellectual coercion is the same, designed to obliterate any notion of independent judgment): where’s Howard Beale now that we really need him? Or cell phones: has a more Orwellian technology of existential servitude ever been invented? Or, just to open it up a bit, what is now called “social networking” (to distinguish it, I suppose, from what was once social exchange and intercourse): texting, Twittering (linguistic vivisection) YouTubing (self-celebrity as social purpose), and, of course, Facebooking. An article in the New York Times recently (March 7), appropriately titled “When Everyone’s A Friend, Is Anything Private?,” reported that the average number of “friends” for Facebook’s 175 million members is today 120 (up from 100 a mere three months earlier). One hundred and twenty friends?

Even given Facebook’s gross misdefinition of the word, how can one even conceptualize the notion of 120 friends? I have a hard time coming up with a dozen, assuming the word has any meaning or coherence whatsoever. Actually, if I apply strict rules (not to mention my own sense of reality and myself), I get down to a handful—including my wife. The primary definition of “friend” in the American Heritage Dictionary is “A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts [my emphasis].” The fourth edition adds a “word history”: “A friend is a lover, literally. The relationship between Latin amîcus ‘friend’ and amô ‘I love’ is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos ‘friend’ and phileô ‘I love.’ In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frêond, the Old English word for ‘friend,’ was simply the present participle of the verb frêon, ‘to love.’ The Germanic root behind this verb is frî-, which meant ‘to like, love, be friendly to….’” I would only add that the modern Greek φιλώ, to kiss, comes from the same root—φιλέω—as φίλος, or friend.

Modernity is clearly redefining the concept of human intimacy and, what amounts to the same thing, exchange. Of course, every age does the same, reconsidering and altering the relation(ship)s between individual and collective. The problem with today’s descent into Facebookery is that human relations are no longer seen as a balance of obligations and reciprocities between individual and collective, but as a consolidation of private and public. Indeed, what is happening to us—another consequence of the degradation of social life by the Friedmanite depredations of Thatcher and Reagan and their acolytes, Blair and Clinton—is the privatization of public life.

My wife has been in New York for two months now. On the subway one day, she heard the following explanation of the world delivered by a mother to a child, who was laying down and thus taking up more than one seat. The child had to limit itself to its own place, the mother said, because “We have to share our space.”

Putting aside the sheer touchy-feely-ness of this abdication of parental nous (and authority), the notion that a subway could ever possibly be construed as an object of magnanimous “sharing” (and, therefore, of prior appropriation) is, of course, a triumph of ego over society (not to mention reality). My parents, my wife’s parents, the parents of anyone over a certain age would have told us “to sit straight” (before we’d ever managed to stretch out in the first place) as we were in a public conveyance. “You’re not at home,” is what most parents would have added in definitive clarification as to why this kind of behavior was not only boorish, but—this is the real point—subversive of the very notion of human coexistence. There would have been no (parentally complicitous) “we”, certainly no “our,” and the idea of “sharing”—that is, effectively seizing—something that did not (actually, could not) belong to you, at least not until you’d become a taxpaying citizen with civic purchase on the administration of public property, would have been either incomprehensible or, quite literally, fascist.

It’s one thing, however, when children impulsively violate the rules of social comity—they’re children, after all, and can only be socialized by elders. The problem is when the elders themselves smash the rules and grind underfoot the very meaning of community and collective existence. In that sense, New York is child’s play compared to Athens.

(To be continued)

3 Responses to “Rot – Part 19”

  1. edc says:

    Okay, how is the mother’s comment a triumph of ego over society. I really don’t see that. Granted her comments were a bit touchy feelly, yes but at the end of the day, she just answered why “someone should sit up straight in public.” Is that really facist? Or perhaps, the facism really should be attributed to older generations, who just told us to sit up straight for no good reason.
    Maybe, I haven’t understood this passage well, perhaps with a bit more of an explanation I can see what your trying to get at.

    So another point I must bring up, and my apologies if I am being to direct here, but I do find it more than a bit interesting that you run a publish company that in one way or another celebrates or at very least promotes Greeks and Greece. Hence the name of your publishing company. However, your blog is highly critical, both of modern Greeks and the state. I am wondering how you reconcile this? After all, I think it’s pretty clear that your writing from a pretty personal place, and that your mostly frustrated with the state of the country.

    So, I am just going to put this out there, as my opinion, and as I said earlier, I apologize if I have gone too far. If you speak with expats, or Greeks from the diaspora who have returned, read any expat blogs, or english edition of the Greek newspapers, all you hear are complaints and criticism of Greece and Greeks. Of course, Greeks do it too and certainly some of the criticism is well founded. But I think a person in your position,and what I mean here is someone who is well read, and working in a communicative profession, could do something constructive, and furthermore because you have access to Greece’s history and culture, you could shed light on things that are actually good here.

    Just a little something to think about…

    Sincerely
    edc

  2. Peter Pappas says:

    My parenthetical elaboration was probably too obscure by half. In any case, my point was simply that you cannot “share” what you do not own. You cannot “share” space on a public conveyance—or, rather, the very definition of public space is space “owned” by no one but “society.” Now, I know that “society” is a helluva concept to transmit to a child (in the US, most adults don’t understand the notion), but that’s where parenting—i.e., the transmission of values from generation to generation—comes in.

    As for those older generations, they might have been (seemingly) unbending, but they were also rational—which is to say that they understood that children and adults do not share the same intellectual/imaginative world(s). The very phrase, “age of reason,” bespeaks this understanding. Nowadays, this notion has been translated, like everything else, into an infantile slogan: Because I’m the mommy (daddy). What that means is, you may not understand why you need to do, or can’t do, this particular thing, but it doesn’t matter, life is hard, and then you grow up. Or, put another (contemporary) way: tough love.

    And speaking of tough love, I want to respond to this notion of “celebrating” Greece. First of all, I learned a long time ago (I was 16 and a group of colonels had just abolished democracy in “the country of its birth”) that patriotism is not the last but the first refuge of scoundrels. In any case, I think I speak for my partner, Stelios Vasilakis, when I say that we did not create greekworks.com to “celebrate” Greece. Quite the opposite, from the very beginning—which you can confirm by going to our Website’s archives—our point in this venture was to contest any number of what we considered to be erroneous, ridiculous, dangerous, and/or actively damaging ideas about what Greece is or isn’t, and about what “Greekness” is or isn’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in “love of country”—at least in the sense that I respect it (and in regard to any country, and all countries), just as I respect someone’s religious beliefs. It’s just that I don’t have to share, let alone ratify, those beliefs. I also don’t equate love of country with pledges of allegiance or folkloric or mythological fabrications of nationhood. Finally, as far as “things that are actually good here” are concerned, there are plenty (millions?) of people (and organizations) hoeing that particular field, regardless of how meager a crop it will ever bring in.

  3. Blake More says:

    Bravo, Peter. Well done, as usual. But let me point out that the metaphoric crop you allude to may one day turn out to be satisfactory, once the Greeks cure their politicians of the terminal venality afflicting them and revitalize their philosoph of public education.