Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Trump isn't my first Nazi scare, and it won't be the last

Apparently, the only people who recognise Nazis are people so obsessed with hating Nazis that they've studied every minute detail of Nazi culture so they can enrich their hatred with specifics. Maybe it’s the whiskey, but I think Nazis are being implicitly encouraged because the symbols favour the status quo. Propaganda doesn't try to get you to believe something, but to do something.

So let’s see what the system doesn’t want us to do.

At some point, people are going to have to rob these symbols of their power by appropriating them for some ironic purpose. Put the swastika on a pink t-shirt with the caption: "I am one of a billion Hindus. Please stop perverting our culture. Kthxbye."

Nazi symbols still seem to have a lot of power because we aren't subsuming them through ridicule into our culture. The Nazis and their ideology were annihilated over half a century ago and were are still running scared from them. Oh no, look, a Nazi symbol! Everybody, freak out!

Many civilisations have slaughtered other people. If they didn't do it on the scale and ruthless efficiency of the Nazis, it's because there weren't enough people and governments have never been efficient. The Spanish wiped out civilizations in Mexico and Central America. The Middle East and Africa is dripping with their own genocidal blood. You could play this game forever. Remember Carthage? No? Neither does anyone else after the Romans visited for summer.

Which means we have to ask why people think it’s acceptable to wear CCCP t-shirts emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. That's the symbol of tyranny, the oppression of billions, the murder of tens of millions and the symbol of a country that brought the world to the brink of annihilation.

Those SS-20 ICBMs weren't make believe. The Soviet Union effectively occupied half of Europe and in 1979 invaded Afghanistan in a push to get access to a warm water port through which they could sell oil and become as much an economic power as a military one. The Soviet Air Force shot down a passenger aeroplane, killing a US congressman, in 1983. Throughout the 80's they were building a nuclear arsenal. The US was trying to catch up to them. The Soviet Union was the "evil empire", when American's endorsed this view by overwhelmingly re-electing Reagan and electing Bush 41, and when nuclear holocaust was perceived to be all but inevitable.

In 1975, the US left Vietnam in utter defeat. It was reasonable for Washington to conclude then that if they couldn't defeat the Vietnamese, the Soviets would be an infinitely tougher fight. It's during this time that the symbols of Soviet power took on their meaning as "evil." That's the point, not that they were against the US, but that they had transcended that in the minds of Americans and became the absolute epitome of what Americans feared.

People need to learn how a culture deals with the leftover tension from a past foe or threat. The key is to take the symbols of the enemy and rob them of power by using them for something that neither it nor the enemy would countenance when the threat was real. No one wore CCCP shirts ironically in the 1980's (they did it for shock value, or because they believed in the cause) because it was not a small threat. People expected nuclear war. Now the Soviet symbol has far less power (the “highly educated” still believe in Marxism, so the hammer and sickle hangs around like an unpainted wall, half inside our consciousness, half-forgotten).

I think we need less knee-jerk reaction and more Mel Brooks, in my opinion. I'm not saying it’s a good idea to rehabilitate Nazis – I'm saying the opposite. They should be rendered impotent and ridiculous so no one can appropriate the symbols for the purposes it originally symbolised.

We were doing this with the Nazis and then it became unacceptable for some reason. Hogan’s Heroes depicted Nazis as entirely opposite of what they were. There was the chubby, genial, teddy bear guard who accidentally sees nothing, and the borderline paranoid, dependent officers. The bumbling incompetence of the Nazis increased as you go up the character’s rank and from the regular German army to the Gestapo. We beat them, now we get to rub it in.

Then at some point, progressives got hold of the joviality (no jokes, only hate!) and started to say Nazis were only evil. Yes, we know. We get it. Progressives need a permanent “enemy” otherwise America begins to look suspiciously like a one-party state. If Nazis aren’t actually hiding under the bed after all, then the Manichean view of the world kinda doesn’t make much sense. How can something be “good” if there’s no “evil” as a counterpoint?

Mocking the swastika is a deflation of its power because those who see it as having power will also immediately see it as having lost it. Those who see Nazism as a source of power will be forced to see it decontextualised. The message this sends to the contemporary flagbearer is that their ideology is laughable, absurd and – most importantly – impotent because in 2017 the symbolism is being used as a sign of strength for those who feel marginalised.

It’s like the prisoners who choose to “convert” to Islam while serving time, not because the religion is true and they believe in the Kabbala, but because for the society outside Islam is the modern-day demon idea and it pisses the “good society” off. Recidivists, in my limited experience, are trapped in a permanent state of arrested development anyway, in which society will always be seen as the father to rebel against.

See, the thing is, the Nazi and ISIS symbols are empty. They are just pictures. The past isn't real – it's a remembered thing. Fearing neo-Nazis is just doing what fundamentalist Christians do with Satan – holding it up as a kind of "sacred evil" to be feared and not tampered with. Mocking Satan, to some Christians, is blasphemous because it implies that he isn't real (and if Satan's not real, then what about Jesus?)

Symbols should never be given this kind of power because that keeps alive in the original context the very thing they symbolise. That doesn't mean Nazisim should be forgotten, it simply means Nazism is not sacred, it is precisely the kind of thing that in its modern form we should be mocking.

What bothers me is if we continue to peg the nasty end of the spectrum of human existence at the Nazis, we’re going to be blind to what a lot of tyrants are doing simply because they don't have the propaganda machine Hitler did. Ethnic cleansing is still going on in Sudan, Africa and the Middle East. People are literally working to death in forced labour camps in North Korea. But they aren't a dead empire from 60 years ago and don't have logos and scary leather coats, so I guess they aren't such a big deal.

And if you know anything about those atrocities, calling American Nazis just makes me want to dilute what I know about Nazis. Really? That guy with a Diet Pepsi and a short stick is the embodiment of evil? What does that make those Congo machete-wielders or ISIS shock-troops?

The US has a short and rose-tinted historical memory. The world is not now and never has been run by 5-year olds. Everybody screws over everyone else if there's treasure to be had. The more people subordinate their individuality to some collective identity – race, nationality, etc. – the more likely "screw over" involves killing, torturing, stealing, etc.

I'm not suggesting the Nazis weren't as bad as you think and we should lighten up. I'm suggesting that everyone else is worse than you think and it's odd and silly to single out Nazis for doing on camera and with a bureaucracy what everyone else in the world had been doing over and over for centuries before the invention of bureaucracies and cameras.

But I don’t deny that's powerful branding in America: in opposition to what you hate.

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