A modest plea for precision


Sometimes when speaking and writing, we may use words and phrases so loosely that we overlook their true meaning. This is particularly true during this critical time when emotions run high, especially during a presidential election year. Here are just a few.

Take the COVID-19 outbreak. This disease transformed from an “epidemic” to a “pandemic” when infectious disease experts so declared it. Both words possess the same ending from the Greek, “demos,” meaning the people. We know this term in the word “democracy,” rule by the people. An epidemic is a widespread disease acting “upon” (“epi”) the people. A pandemic moves the dial to a far wider sphere (again the Greek “pan,” meaning “all”). The scale of the disease becomes worldwide, crossing international borders, which COVID-19 did with great efficiency.

What of more controversial phrases, like “Black Lives Matter”? Some people take offense at this term, arguing “all lives matter.” Of course, all lives matter. This view resonated last month when an Edgartown resident complained about Rockland Trust Bank’s Black Lives Matter banner gracing its front entrance. It did again last week when Red Sox outfielder Kevin Pillar said, “I think the vast majority of us would like to uplift everyone and support everyone.”  He later retracted and apologized for seeming to criticize the “Black Lives” phrase, saying “Black lives do matter to me. Always have and always will.”

The origin of the term focuses our attention on studies that show in proportion to the overall population, statistically more African Americans die by gun violence, especially by law enforcement, at a greater rate than their white counterparts. The movement began after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-styled vigilante, who shot to death teenager Trayvon Martin a year earlier when Martin was walking to his father’s house after purchasing some Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows an armed person to use deadly force when they fear for their life. Some 35 states have Stand Your Ground laws. Massachusetts is not among them. Zimmerman had a concealed weapon permit when he confronted Martin. He shot Martin to death, claiming he thought Martin would kill him after he stopped him.

With so many police killings of Black people, sometimes for little or no reason, the Black Lives Matter movement grew to make Americans conscious that too often African Americans are not treated with justice and equality. Black Lives Matter does not exclude all others, it is a plea to include Black lives.

The same difficulty lies with terms such as “Marxist,” or “socialist,” or “fascist.” Some people may refer to themselves as Marxist or Socialist, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the true meaning of those terms. But it does not mean that the names accurately reflect reality.

Marxism is a 19th century political ideology developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. To oversimplify, it manifests a mechanistic view of human history that claims that social class and economic structure evolve through class conflict. It is very much a creature of its time. Read (or reread) Marx’s famous 1848 “Communist Manifesto” and Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class in England” to see that the world in which they lived is very different from our own.

The Soviet Union claimed to be a “socialist” state, based on Marxist ideas, as revised by Vladimir Lenin. But Marx would have been appalled at the use of his name under Stalin and those who followed. Communist China and Cuba today claim a Marxist heritage, but again, Marx would likely fail to identify either nation with his views. So, what does it mean to be Marxist in 2020? Are there any true Marxists left? Or is this another term that is used so loosely it can apply to whatever we want?

The same is true for “fascist,” which has had many theoreticians. Fascism, and its German counterpart Nazism, are quintessential 20th century phenomena rooted in the defeat of Germany in World War I, the inability of so many of its soldiers to demilitarize, and the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Its first manifestation was in Italy in 1919, with the creation of the first Fascist party in Europe. It existed in Great Britain, Spain, and elsewhere.

Its ideology promotes an authoritarian regime, embraces an extreme racist nationalism that excludes and demonizes certain groups like the Jewish people and Slavs, and demands extreme militarism and even violence. It rejects democracy and communism. In a sense, fascism’s dictatorial nature compares favorably to that of the former Soviet Union and today’s China and Cuba. It demands complete adherence to the “state,” with its expansionist policy through armed conflict to increase the dictatorial authority of its “leader” and territory for its people.

Yes, white supremacists live throughout the U.S., and they have increased their visibility over the past four years. They want to exclude from America racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and religious groups that fail to fit their view of a nation founded by white Europeans. But are they fascist? I doubt very much that they could define the term with precision, especially as expressed in the early and mid-20th century. Do they read the works of Hannah Arendt, Robert O. Paxton, or Timothy Snyder and others to understand the full meaning of the term?

All I am calling for is a more accurate understanding of these words and phrases. There are plenty of others, like “extremist,” “radical,” or the newly created “antifa.” They too require precision. Until we really know the historical and social contexts in which they originated and developed, our use of them will unfortunately continue to be warped and distorted.


Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for over 40 years.