All in the timing

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Anti-fascist.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? A label most of us would be proud to bear. Now, how about this one?

Premature anti-fascist.

Feeling a little cognitive dissonance? Wondering what sort of oxymoron that is supposed to be? I recently came across this designation while reading Studs Terkel’s marvelous oral history, “The Good War.”

PAF as a term applied by the military (and other parts of the government) as a rather ironic code for “suspected communist sympathizer.” Anyone who traveled to Spain to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War got the label, as did some of those who fought for civil rights in years between the two world wars, or those who opposed Mussolini in the 1930s.

That little notation on your file could have a haunting effect. It kept people who wanted to fight the Nazis out of the European theatre; it got people removed from their jobs after the war; and, it was used to target people for HUAC investigations during McCarthy years.

There has been, apparently, a more recent attempt to paint these early freedom fighters as “self glorifying” and to claim that the government used such a term, but there is documentary evidence of the phrase as early as 1945, and Terkel’s interviews (in the early 1980s) include two or three people who experienced discrimination directly and claim to have either seen or been told about their PAF designation.

I suspect that the term was never meant to be taken literally, but was invented by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover or Martin Dies as a code phrase, much in the same way that today’s right-wing politicians uses coded “dog whistles” like “thug” to mean scary black people, or “family values” to exclude gays.

And in the current political climate, it doesn’t seem at all premature to take an anti-fascist stance when some candidates seem to revel in disdain for “the other,” whether it be Mexicans or Muslims, just as the Nazis targeted Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals.

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