Americans know little history and what little they know they forget. Ask college students who won the Civil War or ask adults when the U.S. Constitution was ratified or whom the U.S. fought in World War II and shocking numbers will have no idea.
That's one reason we should be careful about throwing around historical allusions and parallels.
Here are two cases in point: the words "fascist" and "un-American." Both are bandied about with easy promiscuity, but both date back to particular moments in history and carry very specific meanings and connotations.
The many uses to which the word "fascist" is put these days are staggering. Bill O'Reilly called the ACLU fascist. Glenn Beck called Joe Biden a fascist. Barack Obama allegedly called Donald Trump a fascist, while Trump insists it's "the new far-left" that is fascist. Vladimir Putin calls Ukraine's government fascist, but a former CIA director says that no, it's Putin who's a fascist.
Do they know what they're talking about?
Or does Gina Viola? Viola, an activist-turned-candidate who ran fourth in the Los Angeles mayoral primary in June, recently denounced City Council candidates Sam Yebri and Traci Park as "full-blown fascists" on Twitter, apparently because they support funding the Los Angeles Police Department at past levels.
Not just would-be-fascists or neo-fascists or fascist-adjacent. They're full-blown fascists, presumably in the genocidal Hitler-and-Mussolini mold.
Nor did Viola back down when called out. "I equate growing an over-bloated, over-militarized LAPD, and those who support that, with fascism," she told the Jewish Journal.
That's ridiculous. People who believe cities need cops are not fascists.
Fascism — actual fascism — is identified most commonly with Benito Mussolini's Italy. It is also used to describe Hitler's Germany and Franco's Spain, among others.
It is characterized by militarism and nationalism, usually with a strong dictatorial leader benefiting from a cult of personality. Fascist regimes are often prejudiced against marginalized groups. Their leaders reject liberal democracy, tend to emphasize social and economic control and are generally not averse to the use of violence.
What does that have to do with Sam Yebri and Traci Park? Absolutely nothing. But in Viola's defense, she's not the first to misuse the epithet. Accusations of fascism have been unfairly hurled for many years. In his 1944 essay "What is fascism?" British journalist, novelist and critic George Orwell wrote:
"I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, social credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 committee, the 1941 committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestly's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I don't know what else."
The word, he concluded was "much-abused" and had become "almost entirely meaningless," except insofar as it meant "something not desirable."
So what's the big deal if we toss it around carelessly? Only that, as Orwell understood, words matter. "The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts," he wrote.
Fascism was a terrifying totalitarian movement that plunged the world into an era of near-cataclysmic violence.
These days, when we face authoritarian, anti-democratic threats to our own institutions — threats like Trump, not the ACLU, to be clear — it's not surprising that we reach for harsh language to convey the gravity of our situation and the depth of our anger.
But imprecision, hyperbole, false comparisons and empty words can be dangerous. They oversimplify and trivialize; they desensitize us to nuance.
After all, what will we say — how will we describe it — when the situation gets even worse? And, unfortunately, it can get worse.
Which brings me to the word "un-American," which I heard on Beyoncé's new album.
Now I'm not exactly sure what she's trying to say when she sings about "my un-American life," but I do know that this is a word with a clear and precise provenance. It dates to the Cold War when the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee — or HUAC — led what became a nationwide attack on communists, undesirable radicals and so-called subversives.
In the 1940s and '50s, the word was wielded by the right against not just Soviet spies and people plotting to overthrow the government, but also against people deemed disloyal for their beliefs, writings and speeches.
Among those caught up in the hysteria were Jewish socialists and Italian American anarchists and African American civil rights activists — people, in other words, whom it was not that difficult to paint as as somehow less than authentically American.
Some were blacklisted, defamed or deported.
Un-American. The very word implied a consensus about what an American is and what an American is not that didn't exist then and doesn't exist today.
Yet the word hasn't died. The Trump administration called critical race theory un-American. Trump himself called members of Congress who didn't applaud at his 2018 State of the Union address un-American.
Others have tried to reclaim the word from the right. Bruce Springsteen called Trump's "Muslim ban" un-American. The ACLU — those fascists! — called George W. Bush's torture policies un-American. President Biden called efforts to restrict voting rights un-American.
It's a loaded and charged term with an ignoble past that should be used with caution and humility, because while we all do — or should — share certain fundamental values (such as opposition to torture), we also should agree that there is no single "correct" or "acceptable" set of beliefs for an American.
Speaking for myself, here's a recent use of the term I found merited, accurate and admirable.
Cassidy Hutchinson, testifying in front of a packed hearing room and 13 million television viewers, spoke with uncommon composure as she described seeing the U.S. Capitol "defaced over a lie" and overrun on Jan. 6, 2021.
"It was un-American," she said.
Yes it was. Good for her for saying so.
Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.