Posts Tagged Fascism

Fascist Groove Thang

As disconsolate as I was at the end of 2016  (and I was, deeply so), 2017 has managed, in some respects, to shock and depress me beyond expectations.

swastika

Shocked and depressed by the sight of giant swastika banners, and the sound of anti-semitic chants, on the streets of an American city, and the inability of the leader of the USA to unequivocally condemn fascist violence.  Since Charlottesville, of course, that has been compounded by that leader acting as a publicist for the vile Britain First in their attempts to spread fear and hatred.

I know, of course, that fascism never went away, that there have always been cliques and cadres of unapologetic Nazis, but they used to deny what they were, to hide from publicity, not to court it.  They used to put on their uniforms and get out their flags in private, amongst those of a like mind, not to parade them on the streets.

Not only are Nazis now out and proud, but the very notion of truth seems to be up for grabs.  If you are caught out in an untruth,  you simply claim it as an alternative fact.

Robert Spencer, a leading American Islamophobe who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 for his anti-Muslim history, posted on his website Jihad Watch that doubts about the veracity of the retweeted videos were beside the point. “The real question is not whether this or that video is accurate, but whether there is a problem with jihad terror and Islamic supremacism in Britain and elsewhere.”

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/30/trump-twitter-far-right-racism-hate

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “‘That is what the president is talking about, that is what the president is focused on dealing with, those real threats and those are real no matter how you look at it. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”

We were warned about this.  Warned a long time ago.

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.  (Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958)

Orwell, in his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, described his fear at the feeling that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’.

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs. (George Orwell – ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, 1942)

Just over a year ago I was musing about Godwin’s law.

We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust.  We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.

And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.

But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.

What strikes me now, reading those words, is that we’re no longer just hearing echoes.  Fascist rhetoric is being normalised.  It’s perceived as being endorsed, even, when the President of the US refers to far-right protestors as ‘very fine people’, or retweets Britain First’s vile anti-Muslim videos.  The wretched Farage is endorsing ‘concerns’ about the Jews, with a smooth segue from ‘the Israeli lobby’ to the ‘six million Jewish people living in America’, and the suggestion of disproportionate influence.  Protocols of the Elders of Zion?  Whether it’s a real document, the threat is real…

I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

As many have pointed out over the years, it’s not the greatest work of literature.  And, of course, it’s not actually supernaturally prescient – Buzz Windrip resembles Trump in some ways, but there are many more differences.  We are not now in the 1930s.  Because we know what happened then, and what happened after, we cannot walk blindly into the kind of totalitarianism that Windrip delivers so easily, with so little resistance.  We know – a diminishing few of us from first-hand experience, and many more from having read and learned from history – and we cannot unknow.

We can’t afford to be complacent though – few of us would have expected that we would be where we are today, that we would see and hear this normalisation of fascism.  We have to draw upon what we know about what happened then, to ensure that it really, really can’t happen here, and now.

One criticism of the Lewis’s novel which jars with me, however, is the notion that Doremus Jessup, its hero, is hard to root for.

Jessup, as his name suggests, was a deliberate throwback to the 19th century. He thinks and talks in very flowery stream-of-consciousness prose, stuffed with references to writers and concepts long forgotten.  …. While Orwell’s hero Winston Smith attempts his doomed act of thoughtcrime rebellion against Big Brother from the very first page, Jessup takes an age to really stand up to his dictator. …

Doremus Jessup’s one act of rebellion, months after the dictatorship has been established, is to write a fiery front-page editorial. He is jailed for this, but they let him out when he promises to help his successor write pro-Windrip articles. Some hero.

By the end of the book, Jessup is an agent of the resistance based in Canada; his job is to skip across the border and stir up rebellion. But to achieve this, he spreads propaganda himself, telling each man the rumors he needs to hear.

This kind of behavior doesn’t make for a likable character. Indeed, Jessup’s constant wittering about his self-doubt and compromises make it surprisingly hard to root for him even when he’s in a concentration camp, being forced to drink castor oil and taking 20 lashes. (Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston is tortured, we’re right there on the table with him.)

http://mashable.com/2017/02/15/dystopia-project-cant-happen-here/#PRGmT2s5wEq6

Clearly I am invested in Doremus Jessup because I found myself getting rather cross about this, on his behalf.  The comparison with 1984 is, I think, largely spurious.  We are from the start of that novel in the dystopian future where Big Brother reigns supreme.  In It Can’t Happen Here we are in a modern democracy, where Buzz Windrip seems at first to be a hopeless candidate, a joke. Where the idea that a President might set up and mobilise a private army to root out dissidents, and set up concentration camps where those dissidents can be tortured and murdered, seems so improbable that no one is prepared for it.

Doremus isn’t an action hero.  Perhaps that’s why I root for him, contrary to the Dystopia Project’s somewhat simplistic view.  He’s not the guy you want by your side if it comes to a scrap.  But he uses the things he is good at in the service of the Resistance, and uses the opportunity of continuing to work at the newspaper offices to establish an underground newspaper and distribute it through clandestine channels.  He is caught with the text of an editorial exposing murders committed by one of Windrip’s Military Judges, and is brutally punished.

I was reminded of Francois Mauriac, the great French novelist, and member of the French Resistance during the Occupation.  He wasn’t an obvious candidate for the resistance movement – he was naturally conservative, and indeed he initially supported Petain’s Vichy government.  But Mauriac was someone who listened, always, to his conscience, and when the Vichy government began implementing anti-Semitic legislation, his conscience told him he had to act.

220px-François_Mauriac_(1932)

He too was a pretty weedy chap, but he wrote, and contributed to the production of clandestine texts such as Le Cahier noir (written under the pseudonym Forez, in 1943), which was a passionate condemnation of the Vichy regime and of collaboration with the Nazis and an equally passionate statement of hope, and of faith in humanity, of the ideals of justice and liberty.

cahier noir

Mauriac was lucky, he managed to escape arrest by keeping on the move, but he knew  what he was risking, and that he would have been unlikely to survive arrest, torture and a concentration camp.  People like Mauriac, like Doremus, are as much heroes as those who take up arms.

I’m an utter physical coward.  When I ask myself, as I have done so often when reading about the Nazi Occupation of France, what I would have done, I know I wouldn’t have been fighting in a partisan unit, blowing up railway lines or assassinating German officers in the Metro.  But equally I believe I would not have been just keeping my head down and shutting up, and I know, absolutely without doubt that there are circumstances in which I would instinctively do the right thing even if it was dangerous, and absolutely without doubt that I would not betray or denounce.  I like to think that I’d  be with Mauriac and Jessup, writing the truth, getting it out there.  That’s where our hopes must lie.  That in Trump’s America and in Brexit Britain, in the European nations now flirting with fascism and infected with xenophobia, there will always be Mauriacs, always be Jessups, who just can’t sit still and do nothing.

We’re not facing those kind of decisions now, not yet at any rate.  But smaller decisions may confront us at any time, even here, in a country where racist bigots have been emboldened by the decision to leave the EU and by the horrors inflicted by IS and their affiliates, to express their hatred in ways that we haven’t heard or seen for decades.

It can happen here. It’s on us to make sure it doesn’t.

So Doremus rode out, saluted by the meadow larks, and onward all day, to a hidden cabin in the Northern Woods, where quiet men awaited news of freedom.

And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for Doremus Jessup can never die.

(Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here)

 

 

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/15/lying-in-politics-hannah-arendt/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/02/biggest-victories-trump-resistance

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books, 1958

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, 1935, Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2017

George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, in George Orwell: Essays, Penguin Books, 2000

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Charlottesville

If we needed a demonstration that the current President of the USA has no moral compass, it has been amply provided by his response to the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA.  After initially offering a (typically incoherent) statement referring to an ‘egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides’, which was roundly condemned, he came back with something a little less equivocal:

To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

only to backtrack the following day:

You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. … Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. … You had some bad people in that group, but you also had very fine people on both sides.

Some of those ‘very fine people’ can be seen on this report from Vice News:

 

The interviewees here are not random marchers but the organisers and instigators of the Unite the Right event.  The purpose of the marches is explicit – to bring together the various white nationalist/white supremacist organisations who they say currently lack the cohesion and ‘camaraderie’ of the left, and to strengthen the movement to the point that they can clear the streets of the ‘degenerate filth’ which they identify primarily as Jews, blacks, Communists.

unite the right

There is no real pretence here that they are not Nazis.  If you want to claim that you are not a Nazi, you don’t (at least in public) use Nazi slogans such as ‘blood and soil’, you don’t use the Nazi salute, you don’t call your website The Daily Stormer, and you don’t march around with ginormous swastika flags.

 

It doesn’t neutralise any of this if some of the ‘antifa’ protestors were violent.  It doesn’t create the kind of moral equivalence for which Trump seems to be arguing.  Because the sole purpose of the events in Charlottesville were to propagate a Nazi ideology of racial superiority and hatred.  As Simon Schama put it on Twitter, to attempt that equivalence is ‘like looking at Kristallnacht and blaming Jews and Brownshirts equally’.

This is open and clear and unequivocal, and the condemnation should have been unequivocal too.  Trump is too much in hock to the far right to risk that.  There were ‘Make America Great Again’ hats amongst the fascist flags and slogans.  David Duke of the KKK objected even to Trump’s initial statement, saying that Trump should “take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists”.  The Stormer editorial meanwhile interpreted it as tacit approval.

What has not yet been mentioned, of course, is the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32 year old legal assistant and civil rights activist.

heyer

She was mown down by a car deliberately driven at speed into groups of anti-fascist protestors. The organisers variously claimed that this was an accident, that the car was driven by an ‘antifa’, that it was self defence, and that the driver was nothing to do with them.  None of these claims stand up and indeed once that was evident, a truer response emerged, one of jubilation.

This is racism.
This is domestic terrorism.
This is religious extremism.
This is bigotry.
It is blind hatred of the most vile kind.
It doesn’t represent America.
It doesn’t represent Jesus.
It doesn’t speak for the majority of white Americans.
It’s a cancerous, terrible, putrid sickness that represents the absolute worst of who we are.  

http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/08/12/yes-this-is-racism/

Against the vicious, sickening rhetoric of these contemporary Nazis we have to set the courage of the small groups of young people at the Friday night torchlight march, surrounded but resolute, the unity of citizens of all faiths and none

and the vision of Heather Heyer, whose last online words should ring out across the world.

 

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

 

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/trump-supporters-neo-nazis-white-nationalists-kkk-militias-racism-hate/

 

 

 

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Godwin’s law and the Angel of Alternate History

We’ve all observed Godwin’s law in action.  “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1″—that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.

We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust.  We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.

And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.

But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.

This is not the same as accusing Theresa May, Amber Rudd or Donald Trump of being Nazis, or of harbouring plans for concentration camps.  But as we have to keep on pointing out, fascism doesn’t start with that.

It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…

It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
(Michael Rosen)

And it arrives with the drip drip drip of the message about ‘the other’, the other who has the job that should be yours, the place in the housing queue, the easy access to benefits and to everything that you feel you have to struggle for.  The other who is not only (somehow) both a scrounger and has nicked your job, but is a terrorist sympathiser, a rapist or a drug dealer. Or, conversely, is covertly running the whole show, the media, the financial institutions and so forth.

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
(South Pacific, ‘You’ve got to be Taught’, Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949)
 Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.
(Mrs Pell, in Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker, 1988)

 cwaj9y0wgae4lzo-jpg-large

We’ve grown used, sadly, to the vilification of migrants and Muslims, the self-evidently false narratives that are promoted on page 1 and whose repudiation (if it comes) is hidden in small type at the bottom of page 2.  What’s more recent is the vilification of ‘experts‘ (to use the full designation, ‘so-called experts’).  The self-appointed champions of the people, the defenders of the ordinary man or woman on the street, rail against the ‘loaded foreign elite’, ‘out of touch judges’, academics who have no idea of life in the ‘real world’.  In reality, of course, these newspapers are owned by members of that very ‘loaded foreign elite’, and are probably rather less in touch with the real world inhabited by most of us as the most rarefied academic or judge.

More alarming still is the growing use of the term ‘enemies of the people’, and the accusations of treachery.   The former is a phrase we know from history – the history of Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot, under whose leadership it tended to mean at best exile and at worst death.  Charges of treachery have also traditionally carried death sentences and as such those accusations feel like incitements to violence – such as the murderous violence meted out to Jo Cox by a far right extremist who gave his name in court when first charged as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.  This horrifying act, along with the spectacle across the Atlantic of Nazi-style salutes at far right rallies in support of the President-elect, and Ku Klux Klan endorsements of his proposed chief strategist, are warning signs – these views never went away, not altogether, but where they might have hidden in the shadows they are now in the light, unapologetic, emboldened.

What we do and what we say now is vitally important.  We cannot let these views become normalised, we cannot just ‘see how it goes’, or assure ourselves and each other that these people don’t really mean it, they won’t go that far, they will settle down, or even that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that they cannot carry out the worst that they promise.

In the 1930s there was the real chance of stopping Hitler.  Had we known then what we know now, there might have been not only the opportunity but the will.  We do know now.  We know where that road leads, and we know that there are many points along that road where the progress towards war and genocide can be stopped, but that last time we left it too late.  Last time we let it happen.  That is, ironically, our best hope now.  That there are so many people living who saw the worst happen, who remember what that evil looks, sounds and smells like, and who won’t be so readily reassured that it’s all ok.  And those of us who didn’t live through it but who have read and learned and understood enough will be with them.

In 1940 the Jewish writer Walter Benjamin took his own life in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia, believing that his chance of obtaining a visa to the USA had gone, and that he faced arrest by the Gestapo.  He was mistaken – others in his party received visas the following day and made their way to safety.  Who can say what he might have contributed had he been able to hold despair at bay for just a little longer?  But this famous passage indicates something of how he saw the world at that time:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Clarence, the Angel of Alternate History)

Rebecca Solnit suggests a different way of seeing things, inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life.

Director Frank Capra’s move is a model for radical history because Clarence shows the hero what the world would look like if he hadn’t been there, the only sure way to measure the effect of our acts, the one we never get.  The angel Clarence’s face is turned toward the futures that never come to pass. …the Angel of Alternate History tells us that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does.  Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding….  The Angel of History says ‘Terrible’, but this angel says, ‘Could be worse’.  They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.

However things turn out, we may never know what difference we made, or might have made.  If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting.  If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped.  We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse.

Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can, to do the right thing, to call out evil when we see it, to draw the historical parallels with rigour and discernment, to speak truth in the face of lies and love in the face of hatred, to stand up for and stand with the people who are threatened by those lies and that hatred.

And in that spirit we think not of the man today imprisoned for life for a vicious murder motivated by hatred, but of the woman he killed, the woman whose life made a difference and will continue to make a difference, who reminded us that we have more in common than that which divides us, and whose family today have spoken out to assert the values that drove her:

We are not here to plead for retribution. We have no interest in the perpetrator. We feel nothing but pity for him, that his life was so devoid of love that his only way of finding meaning was to attack a defenceless woman who represented the best of our country in an act of supreme cowardice. Cowardice that has continued throughout this trial.

When Jo became an MP she committed to using her time well. She decided early on that she would work as if she only had a limited time, and would always do what she thought was right even if it made her unpopular. So she walked her own path, criticised her own party when she felt it was wrong and was willing to work with the other side when they shared a common cause. The causes she took on ranged from Syria to autism, protecting civilians in wars to tackling the loneliness of older people in her constituency.

Jo was a warm, open and supremely empathetic woman. She was powerful, not because of the position she held, but because of the intensity of her passion and her commitment to her values come what may.

                                                                                                                                                                     The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism, but in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.

Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.

13501689_200243640376474_2899634929177730254_n

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-daily-mail-pro-brexit-newspapers-tabloids-enemies-of-the-people-high-court-ruling-lost-touch-a7397251.html

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/21/how-do-we-fight-loudmouth-politics-authoritarianism-populism-paul-mason

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