October 12, 2003

If the Shoe Fits…

An anonymous reader emails Glenn Reynolds, and Glenn responds approvingly.

Your link to the Ebadi story reminds me of what the WaPo, NYT and the AP did after the fall in the Soviet Union. All of a sudden the most hard-line communists became, miraculously, "conservatives." Now, in Iran, the WaPo uses "conservative" to refer to the mullahs, with the implication that "conservatives" are against freedom. Used out of an American context and left undefined this leaves the reader unaware that American conservatives were/are in the vanguard in supporting freedoms for people in the Soviet Union and in Iran.
Yes, and far too many "liberals" were astonishingly comfortable with the Soviet Union, just as too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today.
Let’s unpack this.
All of a sudden the most hard-line communists became, miraculously, "conservatives."
There was nothing miraculous about it. The hard-line communists were conservatives. They were a part of the ancien régime, the old establishment, a throwback to the past. They were not liberals, and they were not progressives. They were profoundly retrograde and reactionary. You can call them conservative leftists if you want, but they’re still conservatives.
Now, in Iran, the WaPo uses "conservative" to refer to the mullahs, with the implication that "conservatives" are against freedom.
That’s because in Iran the mullahs are conservatives and they are against freedom. And unlike Russian conservatives, they aren’t leftists. The mullahs are right-wing no matter which way you slice it. You can’t call them liberals, you can’t call them progressives, and you can’t call them leftists. At least not honestly.
Used out of an American context and left undefined this leaves the reader unaware that American conservatives were/are in the vanguard in supporting freedoms for people in the Soviet Union and in Iran.
Of course these terms are out of an American context. We’re talking about Russia and Iran, not America. “Conservative” is a disposition, not an ideology, and so its meaning is always relative to the local context. Conservatives defend the existing political order against change. That is their function. The status quo in America is liberal and democratic, therefore American conservatives are liberal democrats. (Note the use of small-l “liberal” and small-d “democrats,” which refers to something more general and broad than the left-wing of the Democratic party.) In Russia the old status quo was Communist, and the revolutionaries and progressives were the liberal democrats. In Iran the status quo is Islamist, and so Iran’s ruling mullahs are right-wing in every meaning of that phrase.

It’s true that toward the end of the Cold War the American right more so than the American left was concerned with freedom in the Soviet Union. And nearly every American, left or right, is in favor of freedom in Iran right now, though it’s also true that the right is more passionate about it. But this isn’t exactly a news flash, and it certainly doesn’t justify calling the Iranian mullahs anything other than “conservative” unless you choose to cut to the chase and call them fascist. Both “fascist” and “conservative” are accurate descriptions and, in the Iranian context, are not mutually exclusive.

Yes, and far too many "liberals" were astonishingly comfortable with the Soviet Union, just as too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today.
This is true, thanks to those saving quotes around “liberals.” The Soviet Union and Cuba were and are breathtakingly illiberal. A good friend of mine admires Fidel Castro and sincerely believes Bush is Hitler. But she is a radical leftist, not a liberal.

Political terms lose their meaning over time because their abuse isn’t corrected often enough. Complaints about calling the Iranian mullahs “conservatives” doesn’t help. The shoe fits, and so the mullahs will wear it.

There is no honest way for American conservatives to say or even imply that Iranian conservatives favor freedom. Iranian liberals favor freedom. If American conservatives feel funny about sympathizing with Iranian liberals, perhaps that’s because they’ve spent too much time turning “liberal” into a swear word.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 12, 2003 07:36 PM

The notion of either American conservatives or American liberals as defenders of Iranian freedom through the years seems a little stretched, though I'd say the liberals were more ... well, liberal on this one, according to a recent book review:

"The Truman administration had resisted any attempt to depose Mossadegh, still believing that, as a secular liberal with the support of his people, he would be a stronger force against communism than a pro-British stooge."

The proposed plan to end Iraqi democracy, Operation Ajax, didn't proceed until the Eisenhower administration.

"Mossadegh still continued to trust the Americans, not realizing the change that had come with the new Republican administration."

Operation Ajax took down a duly-elected leader in an Iran with far more press freedoms than it has seen under any government since then. The secret police of the Shah, SAVAK, were organized by Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. SAVAK applied torture to dissidents in a manner that we are more likely to associated with horrible "enemies" of ours, like Saddam Hussein. This kind of flagrant humans-rights violation didn't prevent a certain American conservative, Richard Nixon, from keeping the Shah well supplied with arms.

And why was a dictatorial Shah preferable to a democratically elected leader who appeared to respect certain basic human rights? It depends on where you're sitting. If you were British, it was because Mossadegh had nationalized British government oil interests (Anglo-Iranian oil being 51% owned by the British government, and a great source of government revenue). Iranian oil was being exploited on terms that had been dictated to Iran by the British. Which is to say, Mossadegh didn't respect the government property rights of British who didn't respect Iranian sovereignty.

But it was American that overthrew Mossadegh. As this review summarizes it: "For Churchill it was about oil. For Eisenhower, it was about communism."

A worthy cause? Perhaps. But was this the way to pursue it? I don't think so.

Bypassing sovereignty norms and squelching cantankerous liberal democracies for mere control of resources or out of fear of another imperial threat has had serious consequences. Ayatollah Ali Kahmaenei is quoted in this review as saying: ""We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadegh, whom the CIA can snuff out." That's right -- they are real bastards. No open society (with all its vulnerabilities to superior powers) for them. Nope. Keep the lid shut.

Bypassing sovereignty can bring all kinds of bad elements to the fore. After all, Saddam Hussein got his start when the CIA financed an operation to assassinate Ba'athist Iraq prime minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. The CIA needed to find some Ba'athist insiders who were treacherous enough and bold enough to take the chance. Saddam, a 20-year-old greenhorn, had the balls -- he pulled the trigger. But he botched the attempt. Still, it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Saddam and the CIA, one that lasted 30 years, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. [source: Patrick Sale]

Posted by: Michael Turner at October 12, 2003 11:40 PM

The conservative movement in America is an umbrella that includes a great number of libertarians and people with libertarian ideas about government and industry. The mullahs of Iraq aren't conservative, they're most likely fascist, in that they want the mosque to control the government and the government to own most medium-to-large businesses, say, all that are larger than those in the local bazaar.

The Liberal Media likes to paint fascists and conservatives with the same brush, which is as much a disservice as the right-wing practice of conflating liberals with post-Modern Marxists.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at October 13, 2003 01:54 AM

The US certainly supported small evil in the past, in its attempt to oppose the great evil of communism, and this is not pretty. It was also not pretty when Ho Chi Mingh wanted independence for Vietnam from the French, then Japan, then the French (before, during, after WW II); and would have won a democratic election in 1956 if the US had allowed a commie to run and win.

The US, wrongly in my view, didn't allow that. But the US goal, to contain evil communism, was a pretty important goal. The anti-Vietnam war crowd has, so far, still avoided its responsibility for the Cambodia Killing Fields, for instance.

Conservatives are against change. Liberals are for a certain kind of liberal society. If society IS that kind of liberal society, than it's reasonable to be a conservative Liberal. But this truth makes the labeling & categorizing too difficult. (more in the long Cal de-alignment, or on my blog.)

Posted by: Tom Grey at October 13, 2003 02:13 AM


I think you missed the point of Glenn's post which is that the political labels we use are misleading. Perhaps deliberately so.

Ex-Communists are conservative. Islamic fundamentalists are conservative. Fascists are conservative. Do you really think this choice of adjectives is accidental? Maybe you should ask Howell Raines.

The hard-line communists were conservatives

Is that how they saw themselves? Or did they see themselves as "progressives?"

Of course these terms are out of an American context.

That's right. How many people think so deeply about the meaning of the terms conservative and liberal? The media elite who chose these adjectives are counting on people failing on putting these terms back in their proper context.

And nearly every American, left or right, is in favor of freedom in Iran right now,

Just like they were in Iraq right? Left and right united for the cause of freedom! Please give me the Mother Of All Breaks!

A good friend of mine admires Fidel Castro and sincerely believes Bush is Hitler. But she is a radical leftist, not a liberal.

If given the choice, would she describe herself as liberal or conservative?

Political terms lose their meaning over time because their abuse isn’t corrected often enough. Complaints about calling the Iranian mullahs “conservatives” doesn’t help.

That is what Glenn and his emailer are trying to do. He is trying to correct the abuse of the word conservative where media elite want their readers to conjure up images of mullah's, commies and nazis when they see the word conservative.

There is no honest way for American conservatives to say or even imply that Iranian conservatives favor freedom.

Are they dishonestly trying to do so? Sheesh.

perhaps that’s because they’ve spent too much time turning “liberal” into a swear word.

It wasn't the conservatives that turned "liberal" into a swear word. It was Democrats who use "liberal" as a fig leaf for their socialist agenda. Democrats used to be liberal and the label therefore fit. However, the label we traditionally used to characterize the Democrats hasn't evolved with their European style socialist policies.

The first step in reclaiming liberalism in its true meaining is to accept that the Democrats are regressive socialists rather than liberals.

Posted by: HA at October 13, 2003 03:37 AM

By your logic, Michael, big-government "liberals" here in the US are now the conservatives, since they are desperately fighting a rear-guard action to defend the New Deal status quo. The Dems who opposed welfare reform, the Dems who oppose tax cuts, etc. etc. are all "conservatives" in the American context, yet are never referred to as such. Wonder why?

Further, part of the point of Reynold's post, although he never says as much, is that the many people, including the standard elite media line, conflates "authoritarian" with "conservative." In many countries, this is laughable, including here in the US. When you look around for folks who want to expand the scope and power of the state in the US, which I regard as the fundamental definition of an authoritarian, you often come up with self-described "liberals."

Of course, what is going on here is a partisan bash, and Glenn is smart enough to see that. Suddenly referring to Soviets as conservative when they are out of power and have been replaced by the kind of system that American conservatives had been pushing for all along is a deliberate attempt to obscure which side of American politics was on the right side of history all along.

Posted by: R C Dean at October 13, 2003 04:44 AM

You guys are way too fast. I was all set to comment, except I see that all my points have already been made. I would close by linking Virginia Postrel:

Outside of the academy and other intellectual circles, however, American political discourse has literaly lost the words to describe what the "civilized world" has in common. We think "liberal" means Hillary Clinton, when it also means George Bush.

Posted by: George at October 13, 2003 06:18 AM

Glenn is breathtakingly wrong with this statement:

>just as too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today.

Only the most doctrinaire hard line leftists admire Castro today and even some of them have turned away. José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize for Literature winner comes to mind immediately. He's a completely unreconstructed communist and until recently was arguably Cuba's greatest, famous friend in Western Europe. He publicly spoke out against Castro after the dissidents were imprisoned and the hijackers were executed and said that he was through with him.

I e-mailed Glenn about this after he made that uninformed comment citing several examples of liberals who had turned against Castro publicly and how the greatest hypocrites now are among much of the Latin American governmental leadership. Glenn all too typically makes a blanket statement without any support for it and ignores the evidence that contradicts his presumption.

Posted by: Randy Paul at October 13, 2003 07:36 AM

Michael writes:

"Both 'fascist' and 'conservative' are accurate descriptions [of the Iranian mullahs]..."

How are they 'fascist'? However you judge radical Islam, it is a universal proselytizing religion, meaning if you convert, you are--at least in theory--fully integrated into the religious community, regardless of race. Fascism is built on an exclusivist and eliminationist racism, no chance of "conversion."

This talk of "Islamofascism" is intellectually way too vague. It's emotively powerful, but little else.

But I'm a newcomer to these discussions, so I'm sure good arguments have been brought forward in defense of the term. I'd like to hear them.

Posted by: Alexander at October 13, 2003 07:44 AM

As long as we are attempting to correct political terms, let's draw a proper distinction between the terms "conservative" and "fascist." A "conservative" (small "c") is one who wishes to preserve the status quo. Traditionally, a "fascist" is anything but conservative: it is more properly described as an extreme, aggressive nationalism, combined with trappings of socialism. Mussolini and Hitler were decidedly not "conservative" (the old line nobility hated them, and the feeling was mutual).

Posted by: Ben at October 13, 2003 08:28 AM

Alexander: As I understand it Islamofascists is used to separate regular Islam from theocratic regimes like that in Iran and what was formerly in Afghanistan. Iran does exalt nation (and religion, rather than race), has a dictatorial leadership (despite what the Times would have us believe, Khatami has no REAL power and is about as reformist as Arafat is), and uses extremely violent measures to oppress opposition. Most of these characteristics are couched in terms of Islamic law, so Islamofascist.

I'm not a fan of the word myself. Theocracy is fine. Disgusting, oppressive regime is fine as well. Mullahocracy (or whatever) is another silly word that drives me up the wall, an example of some pundit somewhere being clever when, again, theocracy would have sufficed. I think, though, that theocracy makes other religious people nervous (because there but for the grace of ...)

And to the bigger point, I've seen plenty of "liberals" (the political type, not the Michael type) in the U.S. refuse to take a stand on Iran only because they don't want to be seen as siding with the administration.

Posted by: ken at October 13, 2003 08:37 AM


Fascism used to be listed in encyclopedias as a system of government in which the political and economic spheres are merged, that is where the business class and the politicians are one group. This definition was wiped clean from such texts when they all became concentrated under merged mega conglomerate publishing houses... no irony there.

Now encyclopedias define fascism as any system of government in which the state is raised above the citizen. Where the citizen submits himself to the rule of the state, usually embodied by one ruler and/or his party.

As such nearly ANY Islamic regime can be described as "fascist". Consider that "Islam" means "submission" in Arabic. Consider that historical Islamic states have always been ruled by one supreme ruler, the Caliph. Consider that Iran nationalized most major industries and rules them through "Islamic charities" that are controlled by favored clerics, Saddam did the same in Iraq, and the Bin Laden family construction business is another good example from Saudi Arabia.

Add to this the religious and ethnic chauvinism of Muslim and especially Arab states, historically.

"Fascism (in Italian, fascismo), capitalized, refers to the authoritarian political movement which ruled Italy 1922-1943 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini.

The name comes from fascio, which may mean "bundle", as in a political group, but also fasces, the Roman authority symbol of a bundle of rods and axe-head.
The word fascism has come to mean any system of government that exalts nation and often race above the individual, and uses violence and modern techniques of propaganda and censorship to forcibly suppress political opposition, engages in severe economic and social regimentation, and espouses nationalism and sometimes racism (ethnic nationalism).

Fascism, in many respects, is an ideology of negativism: anti-liberal, anti-Communist, anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, etc. As a political and economic system in Italy, it combined elements of corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and anti-communism.

Fascism is generally regarded as somehow the "opposite" to socialism or communism. Mussolini himself characterized it as such in a1932 paper entitled What Is Fascism?: ...Fascism [is] the complete opposite of ... Maxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production....

The most common feature of fascism cited in contrast to socialism is the fact that neither Hitler nor Mussolini nationalized their nations' industries. Some contend that this difference is also more cosmetic than actual, since both leaders used extreme regulation to control industry, while leaving them in the hands of their owners.

Hitler commented on this difference in a letter to Herman Rauschning, where he wrote: "Of what importance is all that, if I range men firmly within a discipline they cannot escape? Let them own land or factories as much as they please. The decisive factor is that the State, through the Party, is supreme over them regardless of whether they are owners or workers. All that is unessential; our socialism goes far deeper. It establishes a relationship of the individual to the State, the national community. Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings."

It is also possible, since Fascism incorporates corporatism, that a Fascist regime may de-facto nationalize certain key industries, simply by maintaining close personal and/or business relationships with the corporations' owners."



Posted by: sblafren at October 13, 2003 09:19 AM

Mr Paul writes:

Only the most doctrinaire hard line leftists admire Castro today and even some of them have turned away.

"Doctrinaire hard line leftists" like Congresscritters Barney Frank (D-MA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC-AL), Jesse Jackson (D-IL), Julian Dixon (D-CA), James McDermott (D-WA), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA) (okay, I'll give you those last two), plus various and sundry other prominent American liberals such as Martin Sheen, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, Saul Landau, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Sidney Pollack, Oliver Stone, Woody Harrelson, Ed Asner, Shirley MacLaine, Alanis Morissette...? Are these all now defined as "doctrinaire hard line leftists" or are they just garden variety liberals? I ask because it is not at all apparent to me what you mean by "doctrinaire hard line leftists."

Prof. Reynolds' statement was that "too many seem to regard Fidel Castro as admirable even today" and it is absolutely correct. One would too many, and there are rather a lot more than just one. In fact, it seems that, once you get past the DLC center-left, admiration of Castro becomes the default position.

Anyway, as to the actual post, I have to agree for the most part with Mr. Bennett. The use of the word "conservatives" for in such contexts is a deliberate attempt to blur important distinctions. It would not be difficult to provide some context to such usages - or choose a different label altogether; "reactionaries," a term of abuse only "doctrinaire hard line leftists" believe applies to right-of-center Americans, comes immediately to mind - but it is almost never done.

Posted by: Dodd at October 13, 2003 09:36 AM

As Kevin Drum wrote here:

The only people on the left who have defended Castro are the Gilligan's Island crowd (you know, professors and movie stars), never anyone to my knowledge who is even remotely in the mainstream of liberal thought. Ditto for Stalin and Mao, who were vigorously denounced by Truman, JFK, Johnson, Humphrey, and virtually every other Democrat who occupied a prominent spot in the real world during the Cold War.

FWIW, I would definitely put Saul Landau in the hard line leftist category along with Oliver Stone. Stone, btw was told to reëedit his documentary for HBO after the dissidents were arrested. Alanis Morrissette is Canadian. The "even today" comment is what I object to and the number of people who were previously Castro supporters (which do not include the liberal writing this post who has never partaken of the Castro Kool-Aid) who have turned their backs on him after the crackdown on the dissidents is significant and worth noting. Glenn in his liberal-bashing zeal, made a point of ignoring that fact. If you show me statements that those in Congress made post dissident arrest in support of Castro, I'll be impressed, but unmoved.

If you define one as an unacceptable number then there's little I can discuss with you, other than to agree with you that one is an unacceptable number, but yours and Glenn's failure to ignore the major public denunciation of Castro by many liberals, including Susan Sontag ripping Gabriel Garcia Marquez a new one for not speaking out on this speaks volumes about you and him and your viewing these developments with blinders on.

Just for the record, opposition to the embargo and the travel ban does not translate into support for Castro. If that were the case, then many Republicans in Congress would be pro-Castro.

Posted by: Randy Paul at October 13, 2003 10:00 AM

Bravo Randy!!!

Posted by: EBG at October 13, 2003 10:08 AM


Just for the record, I will gladly match mainstream conservatives who supported Pinochet against mainstream liberals who supported Castro and we'll see who comes out ahead.

I'm still curious as to why icons of conservative though such as George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bob Novak and the WSJ Editorial Page still will defend a man whose secret police committed an act of state-sponsored terrorism in Washington, DC.

Posted by: Randy Paul at October 13, 2003 10:17 AM

Do any of my conservative commenters here actually think that the Iranian mullahs are not conservative? Or are you just annoyed that you share a descriptive label with them in the media?

It always bothered me that I shared a descriptive label with Castro (both of us being left-wing), but that's how it goes. I never tried to argue that Castro was somehow not left-wing. He is and was.

The Iranian mullahs are conservative, right-wing, and fascist. They just are. Regular readers ought to know by now that if anyone conflates mainstream American conservatives with the Iranian theocracy, I will call them on it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 10:51 AM

OK, Michael, you're a liberal and Castro is a communist. You're both creatures of the left, but that doesn't make Castro a liberal.

Similarly, conservatives and fascists are both creatures of the right, but Iranian mullahs aren't conservatives, they're fascists.

See the difference?

Posted by: Richard Bennett at October 13, 2003 11:07 AM


The million dollar question is whether the communist leaders of the USSR were traditionally referred to by the mainstream media as "conservative", before the fall of the USSR.

In fairness, I think you are right in general: "conservative" is contextual. It's pretty accurate to say that the "hard-line" communists are the "conservatives" (in a country with a communist establishment), ditto for mullahs in an Islamotheocracy, etc. (But not hugely accurate, BTW. The "ancien regime" of the communist USSR was not actually all that ancien; why wouldn't a Russian "conservative" be a Tsarist? Ok, that's a side issue...the larger point stands.)

But the point is, if you view communism as the establishment post-Revolution, was (say) Stalin referred to as "conservative" for wanting to continue and expand upon the policies of Lenin? Or was he referred to as something else? And if something else, then why do you think that would be?

I think if we put all our cards on the table, we'll both agree that the basic charge being made is that the mainstream media ™ has a tendency to soft-peddle some pretty nasty autocracies, if they happen to view those autocracies as being on the correct side of "the political spectrum" whatever that means. In fact I think you would agree that this is the case. So I would say that the interesting thing here is not that they refer to hard-line communists as "conservatives" now, because like you say, that usage is correct. The important thing is that they never did so before the "communism" of the USSR became discredited by its fall and disintegration.

Some of us are simply wondering, Why the switch? Maybe indeed the current usage is accurate. But so then what was the previous usage all about?

Don't you think it's a fair question?

Posted by: Name: at October 13, 2003 11:18 AM


I see where you're going and what you mean, and that's fine. I agree with the point you are making.

If you'll allow me a bit of semantics, however, which was why I posted this in the first place.

The meaning of "conservative" is entirely local and contextual. It has no constant meaning that crosses borders, time periods, or cultures. "Liberal" does have a constant meaning and means the same thing everywhere.

The opposite of "conservative" is "progressive."

The opposite of "reactionary" is "radical."

The oppposite of "liberal" is "authoritarian."

"Liberal" and "conservative" are not mutually exclusive, nor are they opposites. You can be a radical liberal (Martin Luther King), a revolutionary liberal (Thomas Jefferson), or a conservative liberal (Andrew Sullivan).

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 11:27 AM

The opposite of "conservative" is "progressive."

I don't think so. The opposite of "conservative" is "radical". Look 'em up. Also look up "right-wing" which, in some dictionaries, is "a conservative as opposed to radical position". A conservative wants to preserve things the way they are, a radical wants to change them significantly. This usage is both fair and value-neutral. To posit "progressive" as the opposite of conservative is not value-neutral; it makes being against the conservatives sound like progress (which everyone likes). But what if the conservatives are protecting something pretty damn cool (like the First Amendment?)

The opposite of "reactionary" is "radical."

Maybe.. I'm not altogether sure what "reactionary" means, I think it's just a knee-jerk conservative.

The oppposite of "liberal" is "authoritarian."

Actually there's a much better, more precise word for the opposite of "liberal": illiberal. Authoritarians are certainly illiberal (among other things) and it's hard to picture how to be illiberal without being authoritarian to some extent, but I still don't see these two as precise opposites.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are not mutually exclusive, nor are they opposites. You can be a radical liberal (Martin Luther King), a revolutionary liberal (Thomas Jefferson), or a conservative liberal (Andrew Sullivan).

I agree with all this. You can also be like Castro: conservative (doesn't he want to conserve the regime he's created?) and illiberal. But funny how nobody calls him that, seeing as how it's what he is. Isn't it?

Posted by: Name: at October 13, 2003 11:39 AM

Michael wrote:

"The Iranian mullahs are conservative, right-wing, and fascist. They just are."

When you use the word "fascism" in the present day, with the omnipresent imagery of the Holocaust, it irresistably connotes Nazism far more than Italian fascism. And Nazism is unthinkable without mass genocide based on biologistic "racial" pseudo-science. I'm sorry, but that has nothing to do with radical militant sharia-propagating Islam, which is a universalizing religion.

My personal bugbear is conflations of America with fascism from the far left. But I think if we liberals ourselves continue to use the word "fascism" in the rather woolly sense of the above definitions, we can't get too upset when the far left call Bush Hitler. We're lying in the same semantic bed as they, just on the other side. "Islamofascism" is an attractive sound bite, but it obscures more than it reveals and comes at a political price.

Posted by: Alexander at October 13, 2003 12:12 PM

I don't see the Iranian mullahs as fascist; theocratic does the job nicely for me. But then, I'm a fan of Orcinus's discussion, where fascism is described as palinogenetic ultranationalism -- which lets us winkle out the differences between fascism and corporatism, which helps us understand why fascist movements succeeded in Germany and Italy, but failed in France in the US.

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 13, 2003 12:28 PM

I'm the one who emailed Instapundit in the first place. My point was that the misuse of these terms by the media always benefits the Left. No one called hard-line commies "conservative" BEFORE the Soviet fall. "Political terms lose their meaning over time because their abuse isn’t corrected often enough," was exactly my point. So why all the agonizing?

Posted by: rivlax at October 13, 2003 01:00 PM

The struggle in this world is for individual freedom.

One will be just as repressed, abducted, imprisoned, subject to confiscation, or just as dead, whether the jackboots march in from stage Right or stage Left.

The term "Statist" covers them all—-because it can.

Using it would clear the debate, and let us get to work on the real ideological enemy, would it not?

Posted by: Stephen at October 13, 2003 01:02 PM

Kimmitt and Alexander,

I admit to being slightly loose with the word fascist. I use it to describe those who are both right-wing and totalitarian. But if you prefer to use "theocrats" to describe the Iranian mullahs, that's fine with me. It works, too. Either way, I don't see any reason why "fascist" can only be used to describe Italians and Germans.


often Fascism

1. a) A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

b) A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 01:05 PM


It may be true that the language you're criticizing helps the American left. But it is also true that describing Fidel Castro as a left-wing dictator helps the right. But I don't hear any left-wing Americans crying foul about it.

As I said in my title, if the shoe fits...

I care more about clarity than scoring political points. And so you are more than welcome to argue with me about what these terms mean (especially since I started it, at least on this page). This is a good discussion here, I think.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 01:09 PM


By the way, I hope you don't feel "fisked." I'm just debating here, not trying to tear you apart the way I would Noam Chomsky or Pat Robertson.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 01:11 PM

The oppposite of "liberal" is "authoritarian."

It used to be that we used the term "liberal" in that sense, but it's come to mean something like generically leftwing but not to the extreme of Marxism. To avoid confusion over the definition of this term, I say "classical liberal" or "liberatarian" to denote anti-authoritarianism rather than straight-up "liberal".

It appears that you're trying to reclaim the term "liberal" from those on the left, and within the Democratic and Green Parties, who've sought to redefine it as something like "anti-corporate authoritarianism".

That's a worthy mission.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at October 13, 2003 02:11 PM

This whole argument could be avoided if America would only do away with its bizarre perversion of the terms "conservative" and "liberal" (capitalized or not, most people don't make that distinction).

“Conservative” is a disposition, not an ideology, and so its meaning is always relative to the local context.

Perhaps so in many parts of the world where "conservative" is the opposite of "progressive", but not the US, where "conservative" has come to mean "right-wing" and is contrasted with "liberal" or left-wing. Needless to say, "conservative" in the latter case does indeed describe an ideology. A capital punishment supporter in America won't be called a "liberal" just because he lives in a state that doesn't have it.

Conservatives defend the existing political order against change.

Again, that's true in other parts of the world, but not the US. The American "conservatives" (as they're known to themselves and others) want to change the world they live in as much as the American "liberals" do (perhaps even more so, since many of the "liberals" have often appeared rather reactionary lately). Everyone, I hope, already appreciates how revolutionary the neocons are in their goal of democratizing the whole world. But even the "traditional" "conservatives", too, are very radical to in their idea of "starving the government beast". (Tell that to people here in Thailand and they'll truly think you're out of your mind) And, of course, there are always those "conservative" Americans who want to overthrow the Roe v. Wade status quo.

The status quo in America is liberal and democratic, therefore American conservatives are liberal democrats.

What does that make the American "liberals", then? Illiberal anti-democrats? And what does that make someone in America who's pro-market, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion but doesn't believe in democracy or individual rights (think Lee Kuan Yew)? A liberal? A progressive? This keeps getting stranger and stranger!

So how about scrapping these two confusing terms and use right-wing and left-wing instead? (Neither camp can claim freedom and democracy, by the way.) I think this would benefit the American "conservatives", whose ideology has been saddled by a name so uncool many college students won't touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Or, better yet, why not reject altogether these crude characterizations that divide the world into two camps? Honestly, I don't see why, say, being anti-death penalty and being pro-abortion should be grouped together and seen ideologically consistent. They can be consistent, I guess, but everyone should think through these different issues for himself rather than rely on an ideological set-lunch.

Posted by: Tom Vamvanij at October 13, 2003 02:45 PM

MJt, as for your "good friend" who admires Castro and calls Bush Hitler, what does she say when you ask about the refugees escaping to Florida? Or the oppression of minorities, or the control of all reading material?

And why always this default to "Hitler"? Why not Napoleon or another Western expansionist emperor instead of that vile genocidal monster? (Not that I think he's expansionist). I mean, I would be less offended at this blather about "imperialist ambitions" if they could just have the historical
honesty to admit that we have not been even remotely like Nazis: a comparison to the British empire would be relatively more fair, though wrong. Does she really think our guys over there helping little kids, like Chief Wiggles, are Nazis?

Frankly, I can't imagine continuing in friendship with someone that delusional and benighted.

Posted by: Bleeding Heart Conservative at October 13, 2003 03:26 PM


as for your "good friend" who admires Castro and calls Bush Hitler, what does she say when you ask about the refugees escaping to Florida? Or the oppression of minorities, or the control of all reading material?

When I mention Castro's perfidy, she says "I know, but I like him anyway." Not because he's a tyrant, but despite it. It is, as you can imagine, extremely exasperating to discuss this with her.

Frankly, I can't imagine continuing in friendship with someone that delusional and benighted.

She is one of my wife's best friends and has many redeeming qualities. And as long as she is talking about something other than politics, she's fairly intelligent. Also, I don't make or break friendships over politics. Human relationships are much more deep and complicated than that.

My wife's father is the same way for the other side. He thinks the Democrats are Commies, but he's otherwise remarkably intelligent. My wife grew up with his political extremism and is therefore quite tolerant of it from both sides. She just smiles politely at this sort of thing, which is perhaps a blessing for me since she and I do not always agree. (In some ways she is more conservative than me, and in other ways she is more liberal. We both have unconventional opinions, though not always the same ones.)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2003 03:37 PM

Alexander –

Sharia-propagating Islam is Universal? I’m no religious scholar, but how do you define ‘universal?’

Sharia-propagating Islam is the ‘religion’ that you can check into, but you can never check out. Under sharia law, if you convert from Islam to another form of religion, you must be killed.

Can you name any legitimate religion which kills its members when they convert? Even the Moonies don’t do that. Islamic fundamentalism is not really a religion. It’s a primitive form of a cult.

Sharia propagating Islam also permits slavery. Should that be Universal?

Millions of Christian/animist Sudanese died and were enslaved in a war that was partially caused by the establishment of Shariah law. Would you call that genocide? I’ll bet the Sudanese would.

Sharia-propagating Islam, or as its followers like to call it, jihad, has killed millions in the name of a cause, and they hope to kill millions more.

Yes, they are an authoritarian crowd, as anti-liberal as it's possible to be. They fit the definition of fascism perfectly.

Posted by: mary at October 13, 2003 07:04 PM

Michael, your wife's friend is almost certainly very concerned with the explicitly stated goals that come out of Castro's mouth. Helping the poor, providing medical & educational services, etc. All good, noble goals. Since Castro (says he) has noble goals, there is a lot to like.

But not the results. Perhaps the biggest problem on the Left is their evaluation of stated goals above reality. If Castro says he wants his people to be free from want and hunger, that's more important than the reality of suppression. If Stalin wants his people to be equal, that's more important than the death needed to advance that goal/ or maintain his power to advance that goal.

Even today, Marxists claim true Marxism hasn't really been tried, so can't really be judged. Similarly on school vouchers, while the theory of gov't school might be equal or better than voluntary (the opposite of gov't) schools, the results for poor blacks is so terrible that vouchers are almost certain to be better.

Posted by: Tom Grey at October 14, 2003 02:19 AM

[T]he number of people who were previously Castro supporters... who have turned their backs on him after the crackdown on the dissidents is significant and worth noting. Glenn in his liberal-bashing zeal, made a point of ignoring that fact. If you show me statements that those in Congress made post dissident arrest in support of Castro, I'll be impressed, but unmoved.

Which dissident crackdown? The man's been the head of a totalitarian state for 44 years, arresting dissidents since some of these people were children. We're supposed to give them a pass because they've kept fairly quiet for a few months?

Posted by: Dodd at October 14, 2003 05:59 AM

Mary wrote:

“Sharia-propagating Islam is Universal? I’m no religious scholar, but how do you define ‘universal?’ Sharia-propagating Islam is the ‘religion’ that you can check into, but you can never check out. Under sharia law, if you convert from Islam to another form of religion, you must be killed.”

Mary, very good point. By “universal” (I said “universalizing,” but no biggie) I meant one thing only: that Sharia Islam—-always in theory, remember—-recognizes and codifies no distinctions of race. If you are a human being and you convert, you and your descendants can be fully integrated into the religious community, the Dar al Islam.

All the “illiberal” features you mention are very true, but they were also true of Christianity once upon a time: the oppression of women (which, admittedly, even in the darkest dark ages in the Christian west never went as far as ritual mutilations and acid-throwing, but many Islamic scholars also repudiate these things as having nothing to do with real Islam), the holding of slaves (see St. Paul’s et al. justification of slaveholding, Bible passages at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/sla_bibl2.htm, used by American theologians throughout the 19th century), killing of apostates (during the crusades, reconquista Spain; the killing of heretics was officially sanctioned by Thomas Aquinas, for example. The death penalty for apostates was never, to my knowledge, ecclesiastically codified, but it was for people who caused other people to become apostates--see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01624b.htm).

Christianity overcame all these illiberal aspects of traditional Christian societies. Islam is way behind in all of them, but there is nothing intrinsic in the religion which says it must be so for all time.


Posted by: Alexander at October 14, 2003 06:35 AM


We were discussing the Iranian regime, not the Islamic religion. Surely Islam can overcome its illiberalism. It already has in some places, such as Turkey and Bosnia, for example. Iran will probably have a liberal form of Islam quite soon. There's nothing like a whopping dose of theocracy to make people yearn for secularism.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 14, 2003 10:27 AM


Mary asked a question above about radical Islam in general, so I tried to answer. But I'll stop now!

Posted by: Alexander at October 14, 2003 10:42 AM

It’s true. I was wondering about the concept of Universalism and pointing out the similarities between radical Islam and fascism. I guess we were wandering off topic..

Posted by: mary at October 14, 2003 11:37 AM

Ah, nevermind. You were on your own topic. Sorry for interupting...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 14, 2003 11:40 AM


Sorry for the late response; I've been away from computers for a few days.

I'm talking about the crackdown that took place earlier this year. It's also wrong to state the following: "We're supposed to give them a pass because they've kept fairly quiet for a few months?"

No, they have done much, much more. They have come out publicly and vigorously against Castro. Some have broken publicly with prior support for Castro. certainly people are capable of changing their minds.

Posted by: Randy Paul at October 16, 2003 03:02 PM

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Fine, as a libertarian, I'll do the same. Pinochet killed a bunch of political opponents, so did Castro. Advantage: Even.

Pinochet overthrew a government supported by a minority (~30% of the vote). So did Castro (~25%? Hard to tell) Advantage: Castro.

Pinochet privatised, once he realized he had screwed up. Castro nationalized, and still thinks he did things right. Advantage: Pinochet

Pinochet supported free and fair elections. Castro, uh, didn't. Advantage: Pinochet

Pinochet stepped down (albeit only to Senator for Life) when he lost free and fair elections. Castro, still waiting for free and fair elections: Game, set, match: Senator for Life Pinochet.

Posted by: rvman at October 17, 2003 01:59 PM

I disagree with two points:

1) Pinochet overthrew a democratically-elected government, while Castro, for all his manifold ills, did defeat a military dictatorship, and

2) Pinochet didn't hand over power; he was forced by his military allies (who saw the coup as a temporary evil) first to hold the plebescite (which he assumed he would win handily) then to accept its results.


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