Monday, April 27, 2009

Fascist as an epithet, part two

By Boatboy

(This is Part Two of two. For Part One, see here.)

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. Paramount, 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.

(Cross-posted from
View From The Docks.)

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  • "They are certainly counting on their audience's ignorance of those theories"

    Isn't ignorance always the most reliable attribute?

    Nice summation!

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:37 AM  

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