by Ran Prieur

October 13, 2003

Creative Commons License
[December 2012: This thing is so full of self-indulgent exaggerations and missed predictions that it's beyond repair, and in terms of serious message, I disown it. But I like the spirit of it, and it seems to be the last document on the internet debunking Jimmy Carter's "sweater speech". So I'm keeping it exactly as originally written.]

A progressive state has just elected as governor a right-wing former Hitler admirer and admitted sexual abuser with no political experience, apparently because he has played a bunch of movie characters who blow shit up. What's happening to America?

Although Arnold Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican and is controlled by people who call themselves Republicans, this is not a victory for the Republican Party. For most of their history, Republicans have been a lot of boring old white guys who sit in quiet rooms making sober decisions to stabilize and sustain a system of corporate rule, cultural puritanism, and dirt-cheap labor. Although Schwarzenegger and Ann Coulter and G.W. Bush call themselves Republicans, there's nothing boring, quiet, sober, stable, or sustainable about them. Is a furnace explosion the same as a furnace?

Or let me put it this way: Imagine that a bunch of communist revolutionaries take over the Democratic Party and then the country. No more whiny liberal losers! Now it's giant political rallies with blaring pop music and rabble-rousing speeches about the "war on capitalism" and the "war on corporate crime." Cruise missiles blow up the corporate headquarters, killing an acceptably small number of civilians, and rich people have their property confiscated by the state and vanish into "rehabilitation facilities." Some liberals are thrilled, and they are given prominent spots in the government and media. Liberals who think it's too extreme are mostly ignored, and old-fashioned conservatives are called a "radical fringe." Ordinary working people just go along with it since it's not hurting them and they're mostly too tired to care.

Now, would this be a victory for Democrats? No! It would be a victory for communists. And what we're seeing right now, in the real USA, is a fleeting victory for fascists.

I've seen political definitions of fascism that mention alliances between big business and the state, or domestic repression, or military conquest. My definition is emotional and mythological. At (or near) the root is an emotional state that's often called "infantile" or "childish," but I won't call it that because that would be an insult to healthy infants and children. If you take some infants and abuse and isolate them enough to suppress their natural development of empathy, and then give them -- in place of meaningful action as a fully empowered participant in a consensual system -- empty tokens of cheap selfish pleasure, toys and candy and positions of domination and artificial displays of love, which they then live in terror of losing, you have created the emotional foundation of fascism -- and of hierarchy, status systems, private wealth, military conquest, economic "growth," and so on.

Fascism is a structure, built on top of this foundation, of certain myths -- by which I mean stories that tell a culture how to behave. One is dualism, where the world is divided into good/us and evil/them, and another is what I call the happiness by elimination myth. Bear with me while I explain it:

First you've got the very idea of "happiness," an alleged stable and pleasant state of being that we're supposed to strive for. Then you've got the idea that you achieve happiness by changing the external world, the world outside the "self" (which requires that in the first place you believe in "self" and "other," which I won't even get into). Finally you've got the idea that the required changes are negative, that you achieve happiness by identifying some part of your reality that is "bad" or "the problem" and eliminating it. Bizarre!

But we're still not at fascism, only at business-as-usual western civilized politics, where we want to eliminate poverty or government or war or the current president or whatever. Fascism goes farther: First, the whole thing becomes simplified and cartoonish -- there's no tolerance for ambiguity or complexity. You know: "You're either with us or with the terrorists, bla bla bla." Second, it's all invested with strong primitive emotion. And third (and these "three" are really just different angles of one whole phenomenon), you've got what psychologists call group narcissism, which you can see at any nationalist rally or football game -- where people powerfully emotionally identify with some vaguely understood collective abstraction that doesn't have much to do with their real lives.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as far as I can tell, is not strictly a fascist. He's the front man for a right wing conspiracy to channel even more wealth and influence to large corporations and the rich, and they are all taking advantage of the fascist tendencies of the American people.

Schwarzenegger won overwhelmingly -- despite a split Republican vote in a historically liberal state -- because he is the world's biggest star of fascist propaganda films, and thus the world's biggest human symbol of fascism since another Austrian lost WWII. The tendency to blur entertainment with reality is a weakness of humans everywhere, not just Americans, and most Californians who voted for Schwarzenegger did so because they were emotionally resonating with his movie characters and with the world of his movies, where reality is divided into good and evil and the good guy defeats the villain, who often says "oh, shit" just before being killed in a big explosion, and the elimination of evil makes everyone happy, and the film viewer feels strong primitive emotions and a sense of identification with the symbol of good and the whole deadly ritual.

America has never been a nice country. Everything we have we took by force. But that's the way of all "successful" countries, and at least we used to sometimes do nice things, like the Bill of Rights, or antitrust legislation, or helping Europe after WWII. When did we slide from routine domination into fascism? And don't tell me it was the G.W. Bush presidency. That was just when American fascism got drunk and took its mask off. I can't prove it, but I suggest it happened in the late 1970's, with two events.

One was a film. Fascist propaganda is probably as old as civilization, thousands of years older than the Latin word fascis. The first fascist propaganda film might have been The Birth of a Nation in 1915, but they didn't really get going until James Bond films. And then, all at once, with one film, they exploded. Of course I'm talking about Star Wars, which goes so far as to copy a famous Hitler rally in its final scene. After Star Wars, every American film that wanted to make a lot of money had to be a serious cartoon where the good guys violently destroy something bad to make everyone happy. And as the single giant star of those films, Arnold Schwarzenegger was practically destined to hold political office in fascist America.

The other event that plunged America into fascism was the popular reaction to Jimmy Carter's presidency. This has been mythologized as the "sweater speech," in which Carter allegedly wore a sweater and told people to turn their thermostats down, and his popularity plummeted. In fact he wore a sweater in all his speeches -- to project a common man image -- and he talked about personal energy conservation through his whole term. But this is what he said in his famous "Crisis of Confidence" speech in July 1979:

...too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

It was probably too late, but I can tell the story that at that moment America really did hang in the balance. We could abandon consumerism, look into our hearts, and gradually move into peace and equality with the rest of the world. And incredibly, immediately after that speech, Carter rose in the polls. But then the media analysts jumped on him and accused him of criticizing and blaming the American people, and he went down for the last time, and our next president was a simple-minded tough-talking Hollywood actor and former governor of California. At that moment America decided to burn.

Carter's mistake was not his alleged pessimism but his optimism, his failure to see that his country was the abused child clutching the candy. We lost our soul and that candy is all they gave us in return, and we will not under any circumstances give it up. They'll have to pry it from our cold dead fingers. Not only that, but we have to keep getting more and more to keep forgetting our pain. In rejecting Carter we were saying to our leaders, who are really our followers: "Give us the fucking candy. We don't care what you have to do, and we don't want to know. You will stuff our bawling mouths with candy and fill our grasping hands with toys or we will tear your balls off." And they did.

Now, a quarter century later, the heat and air conditioning are at full blast, and no politician dares to question materialism, and there are more cars in America than drivers, many of them bloated gas-snorting monsters or even private versions of military vehicles. We have big cars, and big houses, and big TV's, and big heaps of food on our plates from industrialized farms that get more crowded and toxic to make room for our big yards, or if we don't have that stuff, we're working big hours at big-stress jobs to afford it. And our president is a psychopath who looks like the Marlboro man and talks like a movie action hero and lies to us constantly so we can feel good about ourselves while our country stomps over the whole world and brutally conquers and occupies the place with the most untapped oil. And we either cheer him on or we think it's all his fault and has nothing to do with us.

Americans do not understand what's happening because we have demanded to not understand. We have demanded to not be shown the blackened and dismembered bodies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the screaming shit-smeared animals inside the factory farms, the sick, weary, frightened laborers manufacturing our nifty gadgets. But the shell of our ignorance is collapsing on us. The Iraqi people, not having grown up in a narcissistic fantasy land, are smarter than us and running circles around our techno-addled military. Our employers, obeying us as stockholders, are firing us to hire foreigners who will work for less because they're poorer than us because we've stolen from them. We've cut our own taxes so much that every state is broke and we're angry that they're closing offices and not fixing roads. Pretty soon we're going to have to either release a lot of prison inmates or kill them, and I'm glad I'm not in prison.

And we don't get it, because we couldn't stand to get it. We think it's some incomprehensible catastrophe, like an earthquake, not something we have explicitly over many years brought upon ourselves. We blame the politicians -- except the right-wingers, who we exempt because they remind us of action heroes or maybe our fathers. Where, where is the bad guy we can kill to make us happy again? Yes, kill Gray Davis! "Terminate" him. We're not gonna take it!

Not that the Democrats are any better. They want to be better, but somehow they can't. Why are they so lifeless and timid? It's because when they're courageous and honest, like Dennis Kucinich or Cynthia McKinney, they are shuffled to the fringe or kicked out of office. The Democrats are holding a position in Nowhere Land. By definition they can't go as far right as the Republicans, but they can't go even one step in the other direction, and ask Americans to accept responsibility, to give up wealth, to consume less, to stop building bombs and prisons to kill and jail their troubles away, because then they would be committing Jimmy Carter suicide.

So Democrats have become what Republicans used to be: boring sensible people who want to cut down the trees, screw the poor, bully other countries, and do the will of megacorporations, but cautiously and in moderation, so the system doesn't crash. And they're losing! This proves not that "Republicans" are winning, but that the old-fashioned Republican position is obsolete.

So what's left? Say what you will about Americans -- we've never been half-assed. And now millions of us are seeing what few of us can admit, even to ourselves. If we can't turn this train around, and we can't stop it, and we can't get off, the only thing to do is speed it up and run it off the tracks!

This explains the Schwarzenegger landslide -- it's the biggest evidence yet of an alliance between the demonic and the desperate, between those who are running out of room to win and those who are running out of room to lose, between a drug addict's two desires to keep getting bigger highs and to die, between a muscle-bound attacker and a martial artist who isn't strong enough to block the blow but is clever enough to flow with it and pull the attacker off the tower, between those who want to "terminate" poor people and taxes and immigrants and liberals, and those who just want a big explosion to fucking blow this world to pieces.

Californians don't know it, but they have voted for the end of civilization. Not that Arnold can deliver it by himself. California doesn't even have an army, or else the people could demand that he go blow shit up somewhere for real to make them feel better. But he can drive the poor toward rioting, the power grids toward blackout, the sleepers toward awakening, and the elite deeper into their cocoons of oblivion. And he's only one of thousands of drivers, all over the world, who are steering us with merciful quickness into the crash.

There is no other way out, and there never has been. Civilization has no reverse gear and no brakes. Even the Green Party, at 2% of the vote, has not suggested letting the farmlands go back to wilderness and turning lawns and parking lots into gardens, but that's the only mode of human life on earth that's sustainable, and I'm being optimistic about the gardens. I'd love for us to make the transition willingly and painlessly, to use voluntary birth control to steadily reduce our population, to dismantle the weapons and breach the dams and feed the hungry on all locally-grown produce. But then, to copy a phrase from Jon Stewart, what would we do about the monkeys? Because if all that happened, monkeys would be flying out of our butts.

What about Europe? Haven't they followed Jimmy Carter's path? Aren't they already shaping a peaceful sustainable future? Yes -- if they were robots. But they're human animals, and mag-lev trains and solar panels and hydroponic farms cannot take the place of running through the woods and lying in a sunny meadow and digging up wild roots with your bare hands. The longer they can hold it together, the more they will go mad, and then probably follow the same path America is on now.

When lefties finally let go of their sterile socialist utopia and permit right-wingers to crash the system, they'll find themselves relevant again, with plenty of good work to do and the popular support to do it: releasing prisoners, canceling debts, undermining occupiers, exposing genocide, ostracizing psychopaths, legalizing poverty and homelessness, giving back the land, and generally enabling all life everywhere to build a trusting, loving system from the bottom up.

It's not going to be "paradise" or "eden" -- it's going to be a mess! Technology and hierarchy will not go away -- they'll just stop ruling the world. We're going to feel good not by hating things and removing them, but by adding things and accepting them, until we look back and this world seems like a padded cell. I can't wait!