Anti-Fascist Super Heroes
Like James, I find that almost everything that needs to be said about this Ron Rosenbaum hit piece has already been said by Steve Menashi. It”s a thorough and fine job by Menashi and one that I could hardly do as well as him, so you should really read it.
There are a few things I want to highlight, though. The first is Rosenbaum’s strange notion that most evil in the world is done by people aware that they are doing evil. This just seems, well, backwards to me. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of any of history’s great monsters that weren’t assured of their own righteousness. From Osama bin Laden to Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot to the Spanish Inquisition to the Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide to the Hutus and the Tsutsis, horrific crimes against humanity have been committed by people assured that they were doing the right thing– for God, for their sect, for the people, for the proletariat, for moral values. The comfort of the child’s vision of right and wrong is that he or she lives in a mental world where only monsters perpetrate crimes. Here on planet Earth, people who are certain they are doing right murder and terrorize. It’s a cruel world.
But what this Ron Rosenbaum piece really amounts to, in my mind, is yet another in one of Slate’s favorite (unofficial) series, the Anti-Fascist Super Heroes. Like many publications whose editorial culture is fundamentally childish, Slate often reaches for access to moral seriousness by invoking issues that are tragic or “grandly historical”. (Permanent disclosure: I once applied for a job at Slate and I didn’t get it.) Nazism and genocide and totalitarianism and oppression, oh my, and don’t they make your website seem so much more important. If you can’t generate gravity through the usual methods of intellectual and moral responsibility, then you can just grab hold of some of the saddest and most terrible moments of human history, and squeeze out importance and pathos like juice from an orange– and the only cost is that you are reducing human loss to fuel for careerism. What a bargain.
Luckily for Slate and its editorial staff, they have a small stable of writers who are very vocal in, and very proud of, their opposition to fascism. And they say so, over and over and over again, in the pages of Slate.
Take Christopher Hitchens on Gunter Grass. If you see Christopher Hitchens, tell him with my love and a kiss that if he were some tiny fraction of the writer or person that Gunter Grass is, he’d perhaps have a little justification for that galactic ego of his. Grass has produced one of the most essential and powerful works of art concerning totalitarianism and genocide ever written. Hitchens has produced dozens of near-identical, argumentatively empty bits of self-fellatio that rage against Islamic fascism and those who question the righteousness of our hideous failure in Iraq, bankrupt pieces of Auto-Text dross that accomplish little other than fulfilling Hitchens’s only real imperative, celebrating his own righteousness. To put the ethical, artistic and philosophical accomplishments of Grass alongside those of Christopher Hitchens is among the most damning comparisons I can imagine. And despite all of his foot stamping, all of his fuming and chest-pounding, I think Hitchens knows the simple fact: that Grass’s work stands as a vastly more powerful and more meaningful statement against totalitarianism than anything Hitchens can ever produce. This is, I find, a constant tension in these kind of self-styled anti-fascist takedowns– the bare anxiety of influence, the desire to tarnish the reputation of thinkers and writers more successful than the one writing the screed. Neither man has succeeded in actually fighting fascism. Poetry makes nothing happen; men with guns are the ones who fight fascists. But in the intellectual and artistic space where artists and poets and thinkers can oppose fascism, Grass’s delicacy and anguish trumps Hitchens’s certitude and bombast totally, embarrassingly.
Take Clive James on Sartre. Jean Paul Sartre is an intellectual titan, a man whose philosophical project permanently altered the tenor and attitude of his age. Clive James is not. Safe from some tony apartment and a vast distance from the terrible physical danger of fascism and the Nazis, James prosecutes Sartre for insufficient opposition to the Nazis. Never mind that Sartre’s philosophy stands, in its self-doubt and ethical formlessness, about as far from Hitler’s corrosive ideology as you can get. And never mind that Sartre was engaging in the kind of resistance that you’d expect from a physically frail writer and philosopher, the limited resistance of art; no, for James, Sartre just wasn’t fighting hard enough, and James writes this with the sanctimony and derision that are only accessible by those under no physical threat whatsoever. Sartre had no such luxury. He lived, in the time of the occupation, under the constant threat of death that faced all occupants of Vichy France; Clive James is a talk show host. But oh, the courage it takes to sit at a keyboard and attack someone, long dead, for not doing enough to oppose totalitarianism.
Take Anne Applebaum on, well, almost anything. I know two things about Anne Applebaum after reading dozens of her columns over the years: she is an apologist for the Polanski rape, and she is opposed to fascism, both the real variety and the made up “Islamofascist” kind. Her output, in Slate and elsewhere, amounts to a endless screed against that army of straw that defends Islamic terrorism, totalitarianism and the destruction of the West. Like all of the others, she valiantly declaims against an imaginary enemy. She stands against a cohort of no one and nothing and seems to think herself a brave warrior for doing so.
And now Rosenbaum has joined the ranks of this valiant group of people speaking truth to no power. They are the Anti-Fascist Super Heroes. They are angry, they are vocal, they are insistent, and they are proud, proud, proud– proud of a fight in which they do no actual fighting, proud of a fight in which their safety was a given and in which their victory, as they argue against an ideology no one is defending, is assured. None of these people has ever actually done anything, none of them has risked their life. But still they are proud– proud, and envious. Because what undergirds all of these narratives, what throbs from their work, unbidden but as obvious as the text on a page, is their glaring envy, the embittered jealousy of writers and thinkers who are vastly more accomplished and successful than they are. Christopher Hitchens knows that his output is a poor joke compared to the wrenching achievement of The Tin Drum. Ron Rosenbaum knows that the idea that he will be remembered after Heidegger or Arendt is absurd. And this professional and personal envy compels them.
The Anti-Fascist Super Hero tendency, because it is cheap, easy and self-glamorizing, is and will remain popular.
Now, where I’m from, we don’t harp on opposition to fascism because we think such opposition is a given. Where I’m from, we don’t revisit history’s great monsters and great crimes with the intent of polishing our own political bona fides. Where I’m from, we don’t need to prove our moral seriousness with constant invocations of vicious totalitarianism and we don’t pretend that we can stake a claim to virtue by trodding on the reputations of long dead predecessors. The stand against Nazism and all fascism is our duty, but it is one that we wage best by recognizing as one that can remain unspoken. The reduction of that duty to grist for the mill of professional ambition dulls its edge and trivializes one of our most important political responsibilities.