The Face of Fascism

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Western civilization inclines repeatedly towards fascism.

My second-year French professor in 1968 digressed delightfully in his classes. His favourite theme that fall was not Proust, Pascal, or Prudhomme. It was the prospective fascist state under Richard Nixon, should he be elected. He was, and the rest, as they say, is history…

Time magazine privileges history’s unfolding as function of great players, not great events. Two instances were 1990’s front-page photos, one captioned, “The Face of a Hero”, the other, “The Face of Evil”. General Norman Schwarzkopf was the former, Timothy McVeigh the latter.

My French prof taught that perspective is everything. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 innocents, and was executed. Yet he is martyr and hero amongst white supremacists and similar ilk crackpots. General Schwarzkopf, celebrated American hero, was contrarily hated in Iraq in the first Gulf War, responsible in fact for the death of thousands of combatants and civilians, most infamously on “the highway to hell”, when thousands of retreating Iraqi troops and civilians were relentlessly slaughtered “like a turkey shoot”.

When it comes to violence resort, one person’s hero is ineluctably another’s killer. The most startling and least followed ethical insight of humanity is, end and means are one. Resort to violence, reap violence; in violent response to resort to violence, reap violence. There is no nonviolent violence.

The above is borne out in the research of arguably the greatest contemporary theorist on violence: René Girard. From Charles Bellinger’s discussion in The Genealogy of Violence, Girard’s theory begins with the experience in all cultures known to history of existential lack or ontological sickness, which lack leads to endless societal cycles of imitation or mimesis of others, which invariably elicits violence. Society consequently seizes upon a victim and kills him/her to meet its own psychological needs. Humanity historically prevented itself from descending into a chaos of self-destruction by choosing a scapegoat whose death would create a new sense of social unanimity and cohesion. This may be routine sacrifice of victims in ancient Incan and Mayan “civilizations” to secure blessings from the gods; mob lynching of Blacks to protect “righteous” white folk; immolation of Jews in Nazi Holocaust to excuse collective German guilt; prosecution of a minority of “criminals” through imprisonment and the death penalty to let the “law-abiding” off the hook; Allied saturation bombing of civilians to make the world “safe for democracy”. There is a fundamental moral and psychological falsity to, an endless recycling of, all scapegoating violence.

Girard applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to foundational social phenomena. The ubiquitous scapegoat mechanism is one side of the great either/or of human existence: either our civilization (and any other) will continue sacrificing victims to meet the psychological needs arising out of universal “ontological sickness”, or humans will learn to follow the way of “love” of neighbour and enemy at its most broadly political and social application. “Civilized” society invariably acts throughout history the exact opposite to the way of nonviolence, which summation is “love your neighbour/enemy as yourself”. For Girard, the spiritual immaturity of modern Western civilization creates an inability to recognize and love its “victims” (which all civilizations known to history invariably generate) as neighbours. At the heart of violence is a mimetic desire that results from a failure of individuality. The person who has become an individual (truly human) is a person responsive to the charge: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Such receptiveness opens up the way to a new kind of society, quite simply a community of love and respect for all people without exception.

There are increasingly open comparisons between President Bush in his “War Against Terror” and various fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. But the cancer goes far deeper. “The Face of Fascism” in fact is “Everyman” who ultimately endorses sacrifice of “others” for self-preservation (though it invariably be whitewashed as “democracy” and “freedom” in the West).

Here are the chilling words of CIA operative “Anonymous” concerning potential civilian casualties in an interview about his new book Imperial Hubris to be published July 4: “That’s the way war is. I’ve never really understood the idea that any American government, any American elected official is responsible for protecting civilians who are not Americans.” His is scapegoating violence at its most pragmatic. This is Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s recent “final solution” to fighting the Muslims: “What we can do is bomb the living daylights out of them, just like we did in the Balkans.” This is Hitler towards the Jews and six million liquidated. It is also General Curtis LeMay who boasted that “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 [1945] than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” The “clash of civilizations” (Samuel Huntington) is in truth the “clash of barbarisms” (Gilbert Achcar), as René Girard so compellingly presents.

“The Face of Fascism” turns out to be my face and your face, unless we turn our faces collectively towards the neighbour and enemy in relentlessly creative new embrace. The “how” begins with the “why”. My French prof was right: it is the only way of becoming human.

Either we discover and embrace our true selves in the other –” neighbour and enemy –” or we as a civilization are destined towards endless cycles of fascism fundamentally at odds with everything human.

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