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Cry havoc

Did you know that NASA is a fascist organization? How about the Constellation program—did you realize that it was fascist too? Or the Apollo program? What about the philosophical/spiritual observation that Arthur C. Clarke defined as “the Overview Effect” whereby from space, Earth’s political borders and squabbles disappear? Did you realize that this philosophy—perhaps even Arthur C. Clarke himself—is fascist?

You can learn this by reading the libertarian space blogosphere where it’s now silly season, and smart, well-educated people have decided to start using “fascist” for anything and everything that they disagree with, particularly in the government’s space program. Just Google “fascist NASA” and see what pops up. It’s not all ranting by kooks and madmen alleging that Free Masons and Nazis command shuttle launches, it’s people who have long criticized NASA and have now gone off the deep end.

Admittedly, it’s not just space. They call Barack Obama a fascist. Hillary Clinton and Democrats in Congress too. Much of the US government is fascist in their book. Basically, the label applies to everybody except people who agree with them. Fascists are everywhere, popping up like vermin in a game of Whack-a-Mole. You may not know it, but you’re probably a fascist yourself.

Just Google “fascist NASA” and see what pops up. It’s not all ranting by kooks and madmen alleging that Free Masons and Nazis command shuttle launches, it’s people who have long criticized NASA and have now gone off the deep end.

Where does this come from? It comes from a book popular in the screechy rightwing side of the blogosphere. Various people have read Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism and started applying his (flawed) definition of fascism to everything that they blog about. Like a college student who gets his first taste of Ayn Rand and then starts interpreting everything—his government, his professors, his girlfriend—from an objectivist viewpoint, they’ve taken an ideological interpretation to the extremes. But most college students tend to emerge from their Randian phase and learn to view the world from a more nuanced and less antagonistic perspective. Goldberg’s screed is proliferating, at least among those who hate NASA, at least for now.

Goldberg states that even those who study the history of fascism have a hard time defining what it means. So he essentially deconstructs it, taking it apart into constituent pieces, and then sees who he can match up with those pieces and reapply the fascist label. This is a handy approach, because it allows him to apply the term fascist to people who would otherwise seem pretty far removed from it. And he claims that while he’s labeling people with what he admits is a strongly and negatively-loaded word, he is not implying that they are “evil.” He’s reclaiming the language, he says, it’s simply a definition, he explains, nothing personal. And those applying it to NASA insist that they aren’t necessarily calling the people who work for the agency fascist, they’re only saying that they work for a fascist organization, one that has “fascist tendencies”—sort of like the old joke about the guy who tells a friend that they “look really fat,” and when the friend is insulted, replies “I’m not saying you are fat, just that you look fat. Fat as a pig. No offense.”

Goldberg’s tactic is not that new. By taking actions and characteristics out of context and using them selectively, he’s distorting reality. Throughout history various groups, philosophies, and ideologies have used similar tactics and rhetoric—like calls for national unity and sacrifice—and so labeling these as “fascist” is not simply unfair but dishonest. Americans regularly hear calls for unity and sacrifice in their churches, which are not commonly considered fascist organizations. Pull apart Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and you can find comments that Goldberg and his disciples would call “fascist tendencies” even though they originate in a much older philosophical and spiritual tradition.

By tearing apart the definition and using it selectively and out of context, his argument falls apart. The primary problem with Goldberg’s definition is that it leaves out a key factor in the definition of fascism: it must be coercive. And, in fact, glorify in its coerciveness. In other words, fascism is both authoritarian and militarist.

Fascist governments do not allow other competitors to exist. The first thing they do when they gain power is to eliminate their opposition at the point of a gun. Usually they started with the primary threat, the communists, then the fascists turned their weapons on less organized and non-political groups, like the Jews and the gypsies. Fascist groups have also reveled in their militaristic attributes such as discipline and uniforms and strength and weaponry. The groups most identified with fascism—the Nazis and the Italian fascists—were paramilitary organizations that sought to enact their goals through force. It is impossible to separate fascist ideology from the methods used to implement it. Fascists worked through force, it was what they were.

Goldberg gets around this by claiming that although militarism was a part of many fascist groups, it was not essential to them. He also claims that liberalism is “totalitarian” in the sense that there is no part of society that liberals believe should be beyond the reach of government.

The bloggers have decided that because they believe that NASA is too cozy with its contractors, is engaged in mass mobilization as a moral equivalent of war, and is determined to squash free market competition, it is a fascist organization—no offense.

Now there is actually a long tradition whereby groups that feel oppressed have appropriated the language of their oppressors to rob it of its power. But what is happening in this instance is something different. Conservatives, tired of being called fascist by long-haired liberals, have decided not to nullify the label, but to fling it back at those they dislike. Those calling various people and policies and even government agencies “fascist” disingenuously claim that they are merely applying the word in its proper context, that all they are doing is employing a philosophical/ideological definition. But they are also aware that the term is negatively loaded, that it’s a slur. After all, Goldberg’s book is not a philosophy text, it’s a hand grenade hurled at people he dislikes: liberals. That’s why it sells. Goldberg is pretty selective in how he uses the fascist label, applying it to liberal groups and ignoring many obvious examples of conservative groups that, using his own definition, could be labeled fascist. And while recognizing “fascist characteristics” among liberals, he doesn’t apply the same argument to conservatives. Empty-headed liberal rhetoric like calls for “unity” are labeled fascist, whereas Republican actions—Ronald Reagan enlisting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a national youth physical fitness program—are ignored. The book is an attack, not a philosophy text.

And that is how the libertarian bloggers are using the term. They mean it as a slur, not a definition. The proof is that they’re not applying it to people or organizations they praise, they’re applying it as criticism, to attack. And they’re doing it with greater frequency. Now the targets have spread from liberals to NASA. Goldberg gives them an opening, claiming that John F. Kennedy was a fascist. He writes (pp. 210–211): “Kennedy was trying to recreate the unity of World War II in the same way FDR had tried to revive the unity of World War I. His declaration that we should put a man on the Moon was not the result of Kennedy’s profound farsightedness, nor even of his desire to wallop the Russians. Rather, it was his best option for finding a moral equivalent of war”—a typical fascist trait, according to Goldberg. The bloggers have decided that because they believe that NASA is too cozy with its contractors, is engaged in mass mobilization as a moral equivalent of war, and is determined to squash free market competition, it is a fascist organization—no offense. They ignore the fact that it is non-military and non-authoritarian, deciding that these facts are irrelevant. But while they claim that they are merely applying a definition, not an insult, it’s just the latest arrow in their quiver, shot at their favorite target.

Those of you who have been longtime denizens of the Internet have probably already noticed the parallel to Godwin’s Law. Mike Godwin observed in 1990 that the longer a debate continued on the Internet, the higher the probability that somebody would end up comparing their opponent to Nazis or Hitler. There have been people who have been criticizing NASA so long for so many things—primarily standing in the way of humanity’s expansion into space—that they have now resorted to the fascist label.

But this is also a reflection of our current debased political culture, where respectful debate and discussion have been abandoned for name-calling. After all, it’s more interesting to have self-righteous television hosts shouting at their guests than to listen to a bureaucrat discuss health care policy. Many liberal bloggers have long classified people that they dislike as either “evil” or “stupid,” or some combination of the two. Conservative bloggers are fond of labeling liberals as “deranged” or “childish,” and long for “adult supervision” in government, meaning Republicans in charge. Goldberg wasn’t trying to engage in political discussion, he was trying to attack people he dislikes. Now his readers are following along too. Cry havoc and let slip the blogs, to war.

It should go without saying that this name calling is bad for the space movement. Space activism and space enthusiasm are positivist. People become interested in spaceflight because they are inspired by it, and tend to be incessant optimists. They want to explore. They see beautiful pictures of stars, planets and other worlds. They become entranced with the idea of living and working in a bold new frontier. It is exciting and inspirational and even spiritual. Some of them admire, even worship NASA, or at least NASA astronauts. Others do not. But they think that spaceflight is something good, not something bad, hateful, or evil. This belief system can often be a daydream or an escapist fantasy—and one could argue that unrealistic dreams can be self-destructive (people who believe they can fly sometimes jump off buildings). But the fact remains that space enthusiasts are motivated by a positive belief system.

Goldberg wasn’t trying to engage in political discussion, he was trying to attack people he dislikes. Now his readers are following along too. Cry havoc and let slip the blogs, to war.

Labeling policies, people, and organizations like NASA fascist is not a positive action. It poisons the atmosphere. It drives people away. They’re not going to read Goldberg’s book and agree with it, they’re just going to hear the viciousness and the insults and tune out. This rhetoric does not solve anything. One of the corollaries to Godwin’s Law is that by the time Hitler is mentioned, the discussion is exhausted. Those calling NASA fascist are not contributing anything, they’re simply resorting to name-calling.

Right now, if you visit Washington DC and wander down to the National Mall, you will see that the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival has taken the highly unusual step of focusing on NASA. Usually the Folklife Festival highlights a state, a geographic region, and a culture. This year they have selected the state of Texas and the tiny country of Bhutan. But unusually, they are honoring NASA on the fiftieth anniversary of the agency’s birth. Other government agencies don’t get this treatment, and the reason is rather obvious: NASA has an exciting and positive image, projecting our humanity, our nation, and its values, out into space.

Folklife Festival illustration
NASA at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. No fascists in evidence. (credit: D. Day)

If you go into the tents and booths on the Mall, you can listen to astronauts and scientists and engineers and, yes, even bureaucrats. You can see artifacts from the five decades of the agency’s existence, and photographs of NASA spacecraft, many of them featuring the American flag, some of them resting on other worlds. Dozens of NASA employees have volunteered to spend their days in the Washington heat and humidity to speak to and educate the public about the agency and what it does.

It is highly doubtful that anybody will call them “fascist.”

People who shout “fire” in a crowded theater don’t get invited back to the next performance. So maybe it’s time that the libertarian bloggers stopped calling the agency, its policies, and the people who work for NASA, fascists, and maybe it’s time for us to stop tolerating this bloviated rhetoric. It may be Independence Day, but we don’t need more bomb-throwing.


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