Whole Foods vs. partial fascism

John Mackey, the CEO of organic food purveyor Whole Foods, got into a whole lot of trouble when an NPR interviewer asked him if he thought ObamaCare was a form of socialism, and Mackey replied:

“Technically speaking, it’s more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it ??? and that’s what’s happening with our health care programs and these reforms.”

Oh yes, he went there.  But he didn’t stay for long.  An NPR update reports, “About three minutes into his otherwise amiable chat with CBS This Morning hosts on Thursday, Mackey walked back his comments in response to a direct question from Norah O’Donnell.”

“Well, I think that was a bad choice of words on my part … that word has an association with of course dictatorships in the 20th century like Germany and Spain, and Italy. What I know is that we no longer have free enterprise capitalism in health care, it’s not a system any longer where people are able to innovate, it’s not based on voluntary exchange. The government is directing it. So we need a new word for it. I don’t know what they right word is,” Mackey says.

He had the technically accurate word the first time.  He’s quite right about what “fascism” is, or at least what it begins as.  He’s also right about The Eff Word carrying a massive political and cultural payload.  It’s a term that simply cannot be dropped into any contemporary discussion, no matter how carefully, without producing visceral responses and considerable anger.  Fascism cannot be considered dispassionately; it is a bomb that cannot be defused.

Everyone understands this, which is why you can’t really tell a modern Western citizen that his ideas have a whiff of fascism about them, and expect a polite drawing-room discussion to toddle onward, perhaps after a refill of the teacups and whiskey glasses.  If Mackey ever expected any other response, he’s touchingly naive.

Jonah Goldberg of National Reviewwho literally wrote the book on this topic, wryly observes that Mackey backed off using The Eff Word “in part because, while fairly accurate and defensible, it hurts the feelings of people who have no problem using it inaccurately and indefensibly all the time.”  He quotes a longer mea culpa from Mackey:

I made a bad choice of language. I was trying to distinguish it between socialism so I took the dictionary definition of fascism, which is when the means of production are still owned privately but the government controls it ??? that???s a type of fascism. However, I realize that that word has so much baggage associated with it from World War II, with Germany, with Italy and Spain, that???s a very provocative word, so I regret using it. What I do believe in is free enterprise capitalism, and I???d like to see our healthcare system really unleash the power of free enterprise capitalism to create innovation and healthcare progress. I don???t think we have that ??? I think we???re moving away from that. So I do regret using that word, I won???t be using it in the future.

Part of the baggage Mackey refers to is the confusion between Nazism or Hitlerism and fascism, which are related topics to be sure, but not as perfectly synonymous as the public imagines.  There were plenty of fascists who were not Nazis.  Fascism, like every big ideological movement, came in several different flavors, all of them poisonous.  But for most listeners in early 21st-century America, when you suggest someone is flirting with any form of fascism, you’re pretty much calling him a Nazi, and that’s simply unacceptable.

Unless you’re Bob Schieffer, of course.  The CBS News personality explicitly compared the “gun lobby” to Nazis after President Obama rolled out his new gun control proposals.  “What happened in Newtown was probably the worst day in this country’s history since 9/11,” said Schieffer.  “Surely, finding Osama bin Laden, surely passing civil rights legislation – as Lyndon Johnson was able to do – and, before that, surely defeating the Nazis was a much more formidable task than taking on the gun lobby.”

Got that, “gun lobby?”  If Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson can beat al-Qaeda, the Klan, and the Third Reich, they can beat you, too.

What an utterly crackpot, completely offensive thing to say!  How profoundly insulting to both law-abiding gun-owning Americans, and all the people who suffered at the hands of the villains Schieffer compared them to!  Unlike Mackey’s ideological discourse, Schieffer’s outburst was thoughtless and completely unnecessary.  He didn’t look up any dictionary definitions of fascism; he’s lobbing completely uncalled-for slander at people he viscerally hates, because he thinks they’re unacceptably disobedient to the great and the good.  He could have made his dopey point without dragging bin Laden or the Nazis into it.

I think it’s unfortunate that we can’t decouple fascism from the sickening horrors of its cultists, because I believe there’s something inherently feral about the fascist impulse.  When the government exerts control without fully accepting the burden of responsibility, it develops a deep appetite for scapegoats, and a constant need to keep the public organized on the side of the State in all affairs, to keep pressure on its private industry “junior partners.”  Even small doses of such thinking are toxic, and addictive.  Among other things, it can too easily lead you to view your political adversaries as monsters, and casually portray them as such on national television.