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Abusive Families and the Pattern of Fascism

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On the thread "Why "Good Will Toward Men" Has Become More of a Challenge for Me: My Christmas Thoughts," on my own website, Philip Callas wrote:

I've been living in a fundamentalist Christian household for several months now. The several very young children in the house regularly experience levels of humiliation, of physical and emotional abuse and neglect, of external control over their biological needs, of dehumanizing treatment that are all, while still legal and sanctioned by the social, legal, and health communities, have nevertheless deeply disturbed me and reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. My feeble interventions have been ill received and seen as an intolerable challenge. Even the victims outwardly embrace the authoritarianism. It does not surprise me that Christian communities enthusiastically support Mr. Bush and his policies--such as those policies are even known or understood. The blind worship of authority here--whether legitimate or not--has its political counterpart in fascism.

In this vivid and even heart-breaking passage, Philip captures well one of the dimensions of evil that I tried to delineate in my earlier essay on "The Concept of Evil." This is indeed how certain aspects of brokenness in the human system get transmitted. One can well imagine how this pattern of abuse gets transmitted from generation to generation in the family system.

But beyond that, as Philip correctly suggests in his statement that this pattern "has its political counterpart in fascism," the pattern gets transmitted from the micro-cultural level of the family to the macro-cultural level of the polity.

And, we can readily envision how the human wreckage being created by our proto-fascist Bushite regime would feed back into the micro level. The neglect of human needs (tax cuts for the rich, declining incomes for the poor, thousands dead and maimed in war) increases the rage and frustration that get expressed covertly in the family system. The modeling of power --as something beyond question, something wrapping itself in a phony way in the trappings of the sacred, something not bound by rules of decency or by law and not accountable to anyone-- also reinforces the dynamics of a family system such as that described by Philip.

Philip's passage also captures the way that evil manifests when it expresses itself from the conservative side of the spectrum: evil there takes the form of THE ABUSE OF POWER. It is amoral power masquerading as the agents of morality.

This dimension of things is captured well also in a comment by Morley on the thread "What Religious Liberals and Conservatives Have in Common: A Sermon by Doug Muder":

Religion traditionally tries to dam up the sexual urge and divert it into a identification with Divine and earthly power. It places absurd restrictions on how, with who, and when you can engage in sex. Breaking them is immoral. But it has nothing to say about the homocidal political leaders who mass murder hundreds of thousands of people. Gay sex is immoral but mass murder isn't.

Let me quickly concede to Richard Stein that the liberal side its own ways of opening the door to the patterns of evil: whereas the right tends to the abuse of power from the top, the problem on the left typically involves THE FAILURE TO EXERT POWER TO ENFORCE MORAL RULES when they are needed for maintaining good order on the bottom of the flow chart, i.e. on the level of private lives. In other words, the problem of amoral tyranny on the right corresponds with the problem of moral anarchy on the left.

But I agree with Morley that the traditional morality of our civilization is hardly a pure source of moral wisdom on what optimal moral order would look like in terms of the private lives --especially the sexual lives-- of individuals. While I do believe that the liberal side of America has fostered a great deal of moral confusion in the sexual sphere since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it also seems beyond question to me that there's an element of the perverse that has run through the traditional sexual morality of the Western tradition from Leviticus onward.

Just last night, for example, I read the following:

Augustine agreed that Adam and Eve had lived in paradise, in the flesh --a special kind of flesh, which was incorrupt and responded to their uncorrupt will. Adam, he argued, could even have made his penis reach erection, and have generated children with Eve, without feeling lust or committing a sin.

I myself would rather think of Adam and Eve as feeling lust for each other, and taking delight in their sexual pleasures. The idea that somehow the pleasures of the body are inherently a form of corruption is marbled through much of the tradition, and I believe it to be perverse and a rejection of the life force.

Surely, there's a greater wisdom to be had about sexual morality than that either of the "if it feels good do it" sexual libertines of the counterculture or of Augustine (that reformed libertine) and his ilk.

In any event, returning to Morley's comment, he speaks a truth important to our Bushite era in pointing out the eagerness of the right to make moral judgments of the conduct of individuals in their private lives while holding immune to judgment even the most heinous of actions by any authority to whom allegiance has been given.

This is something I sought to illuminate in one of those essays that I regard as dealing with a more enduring, as opposed to merely timely, truth: "How Ruling Powers Distort Morality So that it Does Not Restrain Them," which can be found at

And then there's the dark side of the wounded creature that plays into all this. Philip calls attention to the wound:

The super-abundance of DVDs, of fashionable clothing, of processed food, of cars, and comfortable furnishings that are all part of this wealthy nation may do little to lessen the sting of the profound betrayal of our most basic emotional needs by those who profess to love us. The political freedoms and the material wealth we Americans enjoy are--plausibly--cold comfort for a familial love that has been travestied. An empty belly and a shivering body are hard to take--to say nothing of war and social upheaval--but they are simply more comprehensible to our natures, and they do less to provoke a desire for revenge upon the wider world than when the tears of our childhood are met with a sharp slap to the face.

And so we can end up with people who have developed a character of righteousness wrapped around a core of such wounds, along with the anger and lust for revenge that can come from being abuse.

This is the vulnerability I described in my essay, "Here's the puzzle: How is it that many remarkably decent people can support leaders who are remarkable precisely for their lack of such decency?" which can be found at

And this is how the power systems of civilization can fuel and empower themselves by means of the very injuries they inflict on their members. Thus does patriotism become, through the play of such patterns of brokenness, the phenomenon described by the Swiss sociologist, Denis de Rougemont:

What nobody would dare say of his me, he has the sacred duty of saying for his us.

And we come full circle, tracing the connection Philip suggested in that opening quote: from abusive family to fascism.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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