Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fascist As An Epithet

Fox's FX network has (perhaps unsurprisingly) Sum of All Fears on tonight. Watching it, one gets a clearer idea why the Conservatists think "Fascist" is a useful insult to fling at the Left.

In the 1930s it was very difficult to make the US understand what a threat European Fascism truly was. Part of this was because there were and remain large German-American and Italian-American populations who have strong connections to the Fatherland. But part of it was cultural, and part a misreading of the national socialist economic engine as a revitalised capitalist instrument.

In 1933 the US was only sixty-odd years removed from the strife of the Civil War. Reconstruction was still fresh in the minds of Southerners, who had had to endure another two decades of a brutal recovery programme intended to keep the South defeated as much as the nation united. Successive waves of immigration had created communities of the recent arrivals easily targeted by earlier arrivals: Italian-American, Irish-American and other groups were only just achieving respectability after some very rough experiences in post-Civil-War US communities, and were still viewed negatively from the criminality spawned by Prohibition. The African American population, though legally free and guaranteed its rights, was still suppressed by Jim Crow legislation, and viewed by society as largely inferior. The makings of Fascist thought were very close to the US reality of the time: challenged nationalism, economic collapse, and populations of "undesirables" that made for easy scapegoats for the current set of ills offset by multiple northern European populations with strong ethnic identities.

Many US citizens had been supportive of Germany in the Great War. The US had only entered the conflict in response to to German U-boat warfare, which had claimed several US ships and many US lives in the years before US intervention. Sympathy ran high. When Hitler began Germany's industrial resurrection, many in the US cheered: Germany was "back on track." The Germans, for their part, while not making their activities truly secret, were very quiet about their less-savory activities, and the darkest exploits of the Nazi regime were years away from discovery. There were many in the West, including many major industrial figures, who were overtly supportive of the resurgent German industrial machine.

Ethnic identity, coupled with a revived apparently capitalist economy and a tacitly accepted faith in Caucasian superiority, blinded many to the threat Fascism presented the free world. It took six years of fighting, many lives, and the discovery of the concentration camps and the testimony of the incarcerated and their captors to bring to light the full horror. Part of the shock of the Nazi camps lay in the vivid, graphic proof that presumably civilized and humane Europeans could descend to such depths: the camps in Japan and China were more comprehinsible to the biased Western mind, but the Nazi facilities in Germany and Poland horrified on a cultural and ethnic level that layered onto the barbarism displayed there.

Fascism as a global threat perished with Nazi Germany. But that was in 1945, and the war crimes trials that followed were at once perceived as closure on the chapter and overshadowed by Soviet expansionism. Communism quickly replaced Fascism as the greatest global threat, and the details of the prior period were subsumed by the fears of the present.

Which brings us to today. We are now as many years removed from World War II as 1933 US was from the Civil War. The memories of that period are fading, and that fuzziness is compounded by the fact that, unlike the conflict in the 1860s, World War II was for the US a war fought on foreign soil. The daily reminders that face France, Germany, Italy and other nations directly affected by that war are absent here. The US has only the occasional WW2 memorial, which lists no name of any serviceperson lost in that conflict on US soil anywhere but plaques in DC and Hawaii.

Enter the storyteller and the studio. Clancy's thriller tells of a resurgent Fascist group that steals a nuclear weapon and sets it off in Baltimore, hoping to spark a conflict between the US and Russia from which a resurgent Fascism (centred in Germany and Austria from the plot's implications) could return to prominence. The problem with the film, however, is that none of the attendant horrors of a Fascist society are made clear. The only indicators of the origins of the plot are the accents of the major players. The villains never speak of the overall goals of Fascism: corporatist control of the state, systematic purging of "undesirable" or "racially impure" segments of society, the silencing of all dissent, and an oppressive state mechanism of surveillance and nearly-random arrest and "disappearance" of citizens.

Clancy, in his defense, probably assumes such things are common knowledge and sees no need to delve into any of that. Fascists are monsters out to destroy both East and West and remake both in their twisted image: this should be clear enough from the narrative. Fox, however, is far more nebulous in its treatment: the bad guys aren't all that distinct from the good ones: Dressler's, Fiore's and even Thorsen's characters aren't all that inhuman, and present remarkably "normal" faces to the world and to the audience, just as Schreiber's assasin Clark seems necessary and Cromwell's president Fowler doesn't seem especially liked or likable. It is easy, in the narrative, to confuse friend with foe, villain with deluded victim, hero with situational ally. Part of this is no doubt deliberate: it speaks to the difficulty in the modern world in identifying threats and makes for effective plot twists. But the net effect is the same as the rhetoric spinning now: simply screaming "Fascist" does not make the target Fascist - there needs to be substance to the charge to make it stick. Sum of All Fears fails to make the charge stick to any of the villains, depending solely on the symbology of the German accent and the swastika to make its points instead of delving into the political philosophy that made that particular combination so frightening.

The problem with Fascism is that even now there are schools of thought that, either through adherence to conviction in "Aryan" supremacy, through denial of the bases for the political philosophy, or through simple ethnic identification, play apologist for Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and the others that spawned that philosophy. The US, little affected by the worst aspects of the Third Reich, has a particularly poor frame of reference in this regard: the horrors were distant and perpetrated almost entirely on foreigners, removing them rather effectively from the consciousness of the US citizenry. Without that awareness or the reminders of those lost, the US lacks the immediacy of the knowledge that Europe sees on a near-daily basis: the bombed buildings preserved as symbols, the camps turned into park-like memorials, the fields of graves, and the plaques mounted on walls listing the names of those who lived there and were murdered by the Reich.

In turn, the US' ethnic diversity and continued immigration of new populations into the country give those who support Fascist thought fertile ground. The same vitriol Hitler aimed at Jews is used against Latinos, South and Southeast Asians - virtually any population perceived as taking jobs, damaging the economy and polluting the assumed ethnic homogeneity of the US population. The inhibitions on such thinking that Europe experiences today are largely absent because of the physical distance and the relative ignorance of the US populace.

Sum of All Fears plays on the fear the US is only now starting to shed. in 2002, when the film was produced, that fear was full-blown, and the film spoke to that. Whether the relative normality of the villains in the piece were intended to describe the facelessness of an unknown assailant, or a deliberate plot point to blur the distinctions between political philosophies, it definitely allows the Fascist to hide in plain sight, appearing as normal - and behaving as normally - as anyone around.

This is what the Conservatists are banking on when they accuse the Obama administration and its supporters of Fascism. The distance between the events of the '30s and '40s, the ethnic identification, and the lack of substance backing up the identification of Fascists with the full scope of that philosophy all enable those making the accusation to do so without having to back it up. The US does not recall the full horror of Nazism: the arrest and disappearance of whole population segments, the concentration camps used to dispose of them, the suppression of free speech – even free thought as Hitler Youth informed on its parents – and the other horrors are in full view of modern Europe every day, but notably absent from the Americas. Without those reminders, the US is left with the education system to teach each generation about the dangers of that philosophy, and after decades of public education policy more interested in basic arithmetic and reading skills than fuzzier subjects like History and Political Science, the knowledge the current US citizen has of that dark chapter in human history is at least questionable. The US understands that Fascism is somehow bad, but without direct exposure or careful study it has no clear understanding of why.

If the Conservatists are truly opposed to Fascism – which after the Bush maladministration is arguable – they may well be ignorant of the worst of its crimes, or that those crimes were a direct consequence of the teachings that spawned it. They are certainly counting on their audience's ignorance of those theories, yielding them the outrage against the bogeyman of the “Fascist” without comprehending the precise nature of the evil implied. Their ability to do so is facilitated both by this ignorance and such clever products as Sum of All Fears that paint their villains with the Fascist brush without bothering to layer on all the colours of that particular mindset or the fine strokes that made Fascism so different – and so horrific – from any other conservative nationalist school of thought.


  1. Damn, very good post, Boatboy. You're overriding point of how Americans have been shielded from the reality of fascism is spot on.

    It's the same in Brazil, at least as far as having an understanding of the Nazi regime goes. From time to time you see blatant displays of ignorance toward it, such as when a group tried to use a float in Carnival that depicted hundreds of dead Jews, with a dancing Hitler on top of it. The main Jewish group of Brazil asked only that they put a sign somewhere on it that stated "Never again" but were rebuffed. Those in charge banned the float, which led to many Brazilians claiming that it was a free speech issue.

    Still, Brazilians understand brutal dictatorships on a level Americans can't.

    Again, good stuff,


  2. Spot on, Boatboy, and what Bill said. Americans are shielded from much of reality, and The Powers That Be strive endlessly to keep it so, else their power be challenged.

    Interestingly, in the original The Sum of All Fears book, it was not fascists who hatched the plot with the bomb, but rather an unnamed "Islamist" terror group, and they made use of homegrown American radicals. As the movie was released only eight months after the 11 September attacks, and, according to Wikipedia, filmed in 1999, long before al Qaeda hijacked those planes, I find this plot change somewhat odd.

    Then again, all of the Clancy books that have been produced for the wide screen have been heavily... reimagined. I suppose a complete change in plot was necessary because of the decision to abandon the timeline of the Jack Ryan books and make this one the tale of Ryan's first involvement in intrigue.

    Anyway, sorry for the derail from topic.