Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putin, ISIS, and the Fascist Comparison

History seems to be repeating itself, as Marx predicted, but lately I'm not seeing the farce. Whether it is the assassinations in Russia, the murders gleefully perpetrated for the camera by ISIS, the recent spread of anti-Semitic violence in Europe which has desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves in France, killed four people in a kosher supermarket, and shot a man dead while he was guarding children at a Bat Mitzvah -- in these and other cases from the news, it can feel to a terrifying degree that we have been here before.

Consider for one the most recent news out of Russia -- the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader. I have not seen anyone else make the comparison between this incident and the assassination of Giacomo Matteoti by Mussolini (probably) in the early years of his regime, but I'm sure someone out there has already drawn it -- the parallels are too striking and ominous. Both Nemtsov and Matteoti were outspoken opponents of the ruling regime, both were high-profile politicians. And in both cases, the person in power who had reason to desire their deaths (Putin in this case, Mussolini in the other) was able to distance himself just enough from the assassination to try to claim innocence in the public view. Since the murder took place, Putin has, as Mussolini did, already been pulling lugubrious faces and shedding crocodile tears in comments to the victim's family. He has been vowing to seek out the assassin, and he probably will find some patsy sooner or later to place on the chopping block -- again, as Mussolini did.

And just like Mussolini, Putin, in Masha Gessen's telling in the NYT, has a set of goons to hand who will commit his murders for him without even needing orders. They can thus absorb the blame for the violence in public, even while Putin was the one who subtly instigated it (though so far, he seems to have decided not to pin the blame on some unfortunate lackey, but to resort to the even more lamentable canard that the assassination was a plot by the rest of the opposition to defame the character of his government!) Gessen hypothesizes:
"In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin actually ordered the killing — and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions."
All of this, to repeat, is taken straight out of Mussolini's playbook. In that case, after Matteoti was killed by lower level fascist blackshirts, Mussolini was free to claim that he had nothing to do with it, that the blackshirts were not under his orders, and that he would seek out those responsible. Indeed, Mussolini operated his regime in general as precisely this kind of protection racket. He presented himself on the one hand as the master of his army of blackshirts -- as someone who could call them off if he so chose, that is if the victim capitulated to him sufficiently -- but on the other hand he depicted himself as the imperfect tamer of the atavistic blackshirt forces. "If you keep on defying me in this way, even when you know it makes them upset... well, I'll try to hold them back, but I can't make any promises..." That sort of thing.

Putin too is well on his way toward, if he hasn't already surpassed, this same level of tinpot gangsterism.

From ISIS, meanwhile, we learned a few days ago that, not satisfied with massacring irreplaceable people, they have decided further to start smashing irreplaceable historic artifacts with hammers. If Putin is a sleazy brute, they are committed nihilists, which is a far more dangerous thing. They are haters of humanity.


All around, it would seem that the various adversaries of liberal democracy abroad are set on exploring the lowest depths of fascist-era brutality. What I want to emphasize in this post, however, is that the reason they are doing so, most likely, is that they hope we will join them there. Will we take the bait? I hope not, but there are signs that, unsurprisingly, we will -- or have already.

As Putin and ISIS step up their crimes and follies, we see a predictable counter-inflation of militaristic rhetoric from Western journalists. We're even starting to hear from the Neoconservatives and Euston Manifesto brigade again. And there I was writing confident postmortems on that whole movement a year and a half ago. Just two posts back, even, I was sure we could write off the recent twitterings of the liberal hawks as only so many spilt feathers from the shaking of their nest at The New Republic. But now I'm wondering if we aren't likely to see a resurgence of these phenomena. History is still young enough to see a Neo-Neoconservatism in the years ahead.

As the adversaries of the Western countries do worse and worse things, as they approximate in action or at least intent the crimes of the fascist powers, the temptation will grow stronger to say something like this: "Anything is better than letting them continue; even if we have to go to war and restrict civil liberties, it's better than letting them win; the Western democracies might not come out of it morally unblemished, but they weren't perfect in 1938 either -- they were just a hell of a lot better than the alternative." Here is where the Neoconservatism seeps back in, even into the words of writers who would generally seem to know better. Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books, for instance, was celebrating earlier this month the recent crackdown on free speech and freedom of movement in France because it was supposedly a sign that the state was taking seriously the Jihadist threat. He notes:
"By the end of January, 117 people had been placed under indictment for making statements justifying terrorism, and twenty-eight had been sentenced to prison terms. Among them is the poisonously anti-Semitic performer and activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala."
The thought of 117 people imprisoned simply for expressing their opinions is so abhorrent to anyone with an instinctive hatred of government repression, that it sounds at first as if Lilla is being critical of the French state simply by citing this statistic. But no, he is on closer inspection an admirer of these actions, and similar ones. He describes as "muscular" the policies being urged by the right-wing opposition in France -- ones that would go even further in the direction of rolling back civil liberties, and which, in Lilla's telling, the current government might be willing to implement. One possibility he notes along these lines is that of "limiting the civil rights of nationals who get involved in jihadist movements (as was done with Vichy collaborators after World War II)." What civil rights? The last I heard, most of those Vichy collaborators were lynched in the streets, executed by firing squad or hanging, or subjected to various public sadisms at the end of the war. Is that what we mean by "muscular"?

Lilla's comparison to the fascist era is telling, and one we will be seeing a great deal more of. To show a parallel to fascism is often treated as a clincher in making the case for military intervention and the rollback of civil liberties (the usual Neoconservative program). We tend to think of the struggle against the fascist powers as a singularly justified one, so if we can show a similarity between a contemporary adversary and fascism, we believe we have made quite adequately the case for war. The typical response from anti-interventionists, therefore, is to insist that the comparison is invalid -- that present circumstances are "more complicated" than those of Europe in the 1930s. If Hitler was a quintessentially evil and deadly foe, waging war against an alliance of democratic nations, the present world conflict must be understood, it is said, in terms of less stark moral contrasts.

I am unusual among the anti-interventionists, therefore, in thinking that the comparisons between the fascist era and the present are actually pretty apt. I'm willing to acknowledge that the current conflict is actually morally straightforward in some of the same ways that World War II was -- namely, in the moral character of our government's adversaries. I just happen to think that both are morally complicated in similar ways along certain other key dimensions -- but I'll come to that in a moment.

For present, I want to emphasize that the ideology of ISIS is evil in an entirely uncomplicated way, much as Nazism was. If it has not yet copied Hitler in seeking the total physical destruction of whole groups of people, its treatment of religious minorities and rival sects has advanced it well on the path toward ethnic cleansing, cultural genocide, and a host of other crimes against humanity. It even shares many of its targets with Hitler's regime -- Jewish people, sectarian minorities, thinkers, artists, history that does not serve the prevailing mythology, the whole record of human moral progress.

In another sense, however, the anti-interventionists are right to emphasize that a battle against the Islamic State is a morally complicated one. They are correct, for instance, to argue that bombing campaigns against IS will likely end up killing civilians, bystanders, and a lot of the people currently suffering under IS rule -- not to mention one other group of likely victims of the bombings who would also have to be judged innocents by a perfect justice: namely, the diseased, addled, and mentally manipulated young people whom ISIS recruits to its execrable crusade. Evil resides in ideologies and actions, not in soldiers and human beings.

The anti-interventionists are right likewise to say that the forces battling IS are hardly less abominable, and that this is another complicating factor in this conflict. Think of Bashar al-Assad; think of the Shiite militias who recently assassinated a Sunni sheik and his son for their efforts at urging moderation and the protection of human rights. And think of us too -- the vaunted American democracy. Of course, our government is in no sense as bad as the jihadists, and anyone who says it is is a pestilential fool. But we have plenty of murder and torture on our resume too, and we must never forget that we are as capable as any other human groups of behaving as badly as the worst, if given enough leash to do it.

The present case is complex, therefore, as the non-interventionists insist. I'm just wondering whether the Second World War wasn't complex in many of the same ways. There too we had Western democracies battling against far more evil opponents, yet the further they were dared to plunge into the conflict with fascism, the more they came to resemble the latter. The worse the fascist atrocities grew, the greater was the temptation on our part to mirror them. In this connection, Lilla's comparison with the treatment of French "collaborators" after the war perhaps reveals more than he intends it to.

Perhaps the problem with viewing the "fascist comparison" as the ultimate clincher in the argument for war, then, is not that contemporary movements are never analogous to fascism -- plainly, some of them are -- but with this argument's unstated assumption that a simplistically evil opponent makes for a simplistically moral war. War is never just waged against one foe, after all -- it takes place in a world in which violence has rippling consequences of a horrible nature.

And that was just as true in the era of WWII as it is now. What was the Second World War, after all? It was a war against genocidal racial ideology, perhaps, but then too, it was a war waged by our military through the deliberate incineration of entire cities full of people in Japan and Germany. It was waged by locking up hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, purely on the basis of their race.

I do still think that fascism in Europe demanded a violent response, and that the Second World War was in some limited sense justified. But I wonder if future generations will look back on it as quite the unproblematic struggle for freedom that it represents today in our polemics. I wonder too if we would regard the war in those rosy terms today, if it hadn't been endorsed in its own time by the majority of the liberal and left-wing intelligentsia. The Right may enact history, after all, but the Left tends to write it.


As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've been engaged on and off the past few months with a research project, which will hopefully issue into a Masters Thesis, that looks at liberal religious periodicals in the post-war era-- and specifically, at what they had to say about that then-recent conflict. I must say, I don't find that the people writing in these journals lived in a more linear and uncomplicated moral world, or that they faced easier ethical choices, than we do today. They too were confronted by the menace of an exclusivist, racist, and totalist ideology attempting to gain power in the world. Their complete opposition to that ideology could not come into question. Yet they had to ask themselves at the same time with just how many unwholesome characters they were willing to ally themselves in the effort to defeat that ideology-- and just what kinds of unwholesome characters they were willing to become themselves in the process.

I was struck in some recent reading for this project by an editorial comment I found in a Universalist magazine from 1946. It dealt with the forced displacement of the German-speaking minority in the Sudetenland by the new Czech government after the war -- a dramatic and brutal relocation that was carried out with the full support of the Allied powers, after Potsdam, and which resulted in tremendous death and suffering.

The editors of this Universalist magazine register some concern at the removals, but they end eventually by justifying them. The reasons they cite are the Sudeten Germans' support for the Nazi party, their alleged collective guilt in Nazi atrocities, and the future danger that they might form some "fifth column" of support for a Nazi revival. They add that the Sudenten Germans have always maintained an unfair dominance in local industry and finance, and that they never properly allowed themselves to be integrated into the Czech nation, i.e. that they willfully preserved a separate and exclusive character.

In other words, this editorial ended up justifying these transfers of (supposedly pro-Nazi) Germans, by repeating against these Germans some of the hoariest tropes of anti-Semitic literature (some spurious collective sin, alleged economic dominance, the charge of exclusivity and of refusing to belong to "the nation," purported allegiance to some foreign totalitarianism). Keep in mind that the victims of these displacements were  mostly children, women, and older people, according to at least one modern historian. I suppose children grow up, as the Greeks said at Troy, and as ethnic cleansers have been telling themselves throughout history.

Do you see my point about how we tend to come full circle-- how we can think we're righteously and vigorously protesting persecution in the very process of committing it? It's quite possible to have an anti-fascist fascism, an anti-ISIS ISIS. We chase the tail of fascism and bite it and discover it is our own.

None of this means, of course, that we should grant ideological quarter for one instant to Putin and ISIS. They are both, let me repeat, far worse actors than the Western democracies. They will both want to play the historic victim card and charge the West with "imperialism": and none of us should ever believe it, or forget for one instant the far worst imperialisms to which both would like to subject the world.

Nor should we forget the fact that the fascists always said the same kinds of things -- and I tell you, the ironies pile up quick at this point. After its recent atrocities in Libya, for instance, the Islamic State issued a special warning to the Italian people, saying that they'd be next. Presumably this was prompted by the geographical proximity of Libya to Italy, but it might also have been a gesture toward the history of Italian imperialism in North Africa. Here we have that victim card I mentioned showing its face. And yet, Mussolini himself, when he invaded Libya and Ethiopia and committed a series of war crimes there, played the historic victim card too. As he was fond of saying, Italy was a "proletarian nation." By waging his war against these sovereign African countries, he was only making a strike against British and French imperial dominance, in his ideology. He was the underdog, fighting against the hegemons. Sometimes even the Nazis said the same thing. Jorge Luis Borges once noted in an essay the ease with which a Nazi "superman" in one instant will become a piteous plaintiff for justice the next. He will make the jarring transition, of course, so soon as justice and victim status can be parlayed into some advantage for himself. Everybody's a victim when it is convenient for him to be such. This is especially true of the world's great victimizers, to whose ignoble roster the name of ISIS now belongs. Perhaps this is where that "farce" enters that Marx was talking about.

I have an absolute hatred of all these trashy monstrosities: of ISIS's savageries and posturings and pornographies, of the Kremlin's odious clichés that disguise its public murders. What I am saying here, though, is that one has to remember and take pity on the confused and suffering people who may swirl into the eddies of these psychotic totalisms. One has to remember too that even a conflict against an evil foe may place in the crossfire a lot of innocent people, who are just trying to continue their lives. Most difficult to keep in mind, I am also insisting that a foe remains a human being, who is worth something more for that reason than the sum of his worst actions.

One has to remember that the real victory for fascism comes when one becomes a fascist -- whether one does so by joining a fascist movement or in the mistaken belief that the best way to combat fascism is to adopt its tactics. There is nothing that ISIS and Putin would like more than to lock themselves into a permanent struggle against the "decadent West." That is precisely the meaning and the pretext and the mission they are looking for. There is no more complete victory for them than if we mirror their atrocities, than if we mimic their grotesqueries, than if we descend to their level.

What they do not want is that we pursue a consistent policy of peace and civility. That's one of the many good reasons why, in a dramatic reversal from all our recent history, we should do just that.

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