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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, August 21st, 2020

Instructive bad reading, Part I: Dissecting fascism with the help of “Might is Right”

Editor’s Note: This is part four of a four-part series on the white suprema­cist text Might Is Right and the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can fas­cism. This series looks at how ideas stat­ed out­right in that late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry text have con­tin­ued to have influ­ence into the present day, from Satanists and Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists to pale­o­con­ser­v­a­tives and right-wing terrorists.

Jump to Part One | Two | Three | Four

… Racism may wear a new dress, buy a new pair of boots, but nei­ther it nor its suc­cubus twin fas­cism is new or can make any­thing new.

— Toni Mor­ri­son, nov­el­ist and schol­ar (1995)

You start out in 1954 by say­ing, “N—–, n—–, n—–.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—–” — that hurts you, back­fires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced bus­ing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re get­ting so abstract. Now, you’re talk­ing about cut­ting tax­es, and all these things you’re talk­ing about are total­ly eco­nom­ic things and a byprod­uct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the bus­ing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–.”

— Lee Atwa­ter, Repub­li­can cam­paign oper­a­tive (1981)

In 2018, the video essay­ist Har­ry Brewis put for­ward the idea that cer­tain works of media are use­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ing because they are bad art.

That is, because their cre­ators are so art­less, the works insuf­fi­cient­ly seduce and dis­tract from what mes­sage the authors are real­ly saying.

Thus a film like The Room, writ­ten, direct­ed by, and star­ring the incom­pe­tent Tom­my Wiseau, is far more use­ful to under­stand­ing how abu­sive men make movies about their failed rela­tion­ships than, say, a gift­ed screen­writer like Char­lie Kauf­man who can hide it much bet­ter.

Sim­i­lar­ly, in 2015, the Bal­ti­more-based video essay­ist Natal­ie Wynn had an insight in the wake of protests about the death of Fred­die Gray in police cus­tody: the sort of vio­lent, vir­u­lent­ly racist state­ments peo­ple were mak­ing anony­mous­ly online in response to the cov­er­age was­n’t sep­a­rate from the rest of their lives.

“I thought that if peo­ple are leav­ing these com­ments, they’re think­ing these thoughts all the time,” she told Vice.

She real­ized they would go on to vote and march and kill accord­ing to those same thoughts. Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist George Will is less impor­tant to under­stand­ing what moti­vates con­ser­v­a­tives than is SSJ4Teen88_Pepe.

The memes, the “jokes”, the irony and exag­ger­a­tions are, in fact, height­ened expres­sions of their ide­ol­o­gy and need to be reck­oned with, not laughed off.

Peo­ple are more than capa­ble of being dead­ly seri­ous about what oth­ers would assume to be absurd, and the ama­teurs may be more awk­ward than the pro­fes­sion­als, but they’re all play­ing the same game.

It’s with that util­i­ty in mind that I rec­om­mend the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry pro­to-fas­cist work Might Is Right by the pseu­do­ny­mous Rag­nar Redbeard.

It is as boor­ish as it is pre­ten­tious; it is as bor­ing as its struc­ture is dif­fi­cult to fol­low. The author hates all art that isn’t Shake­speare, but to call the poet­ry he writes “dog­ger­el” is to heap undue praise on it. It’s also grotesque­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly big­ot­ed in vir­tu­al­ly every way at every turn.

This book’s val­ue comes from its ter­ri­ble­ness in craft as well as substance.

Despite being writ­ten one hun­dred and twen­ty-five years ago, Might Is Right makes plain how old and per­va­sive the roots of fas­cism are in our own country.

In the process, it shows — with­out mean­ing to — why ideas like white suprema­cy, patri­archy, con­ser­v­a­tivism, and cap­i­tal­ism have such intrin­sic har­mo­ny even today.

That’s the thing about dog-whis­tles: just because you can’t hear the fre­quen­cy does­n’t mean they aren’t still just as loud.

Might is Right was pub­lished in 1896 in Chica­go under the orig­i­nal title “Sur­vival of the Fittest: Phi­los­o­phy of Pow­er”. Its author was Arthur Desmond, an Australian/New Zealan­der white suprema­cist who’d been a jour­nal­ist and failed also-ran local politi­cian before being forced to flee both countries.

But “Rag­nar Red­beard” fit the writ­ing itself bet­ter than “Arthur.”

Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly for a per­son clear­ly obsessed with wealth, suc­cess, and force, Desmond was poor, had lit­tle suc­cess him­self, and accom­plished noth­ing by force. He’s such a minor fig­ure in his­to­ry, many aspects of his biog­ra­phy includ­ing his death aren’t pinned down. We’re not sure of his birth name because he is of so lit­tle con­se­quence as a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure out­side of this one book.

Yet Desmond was con­vinced his book was some­thing laud­ably special.

With supreme con­fi­dence he sent a copy to Russ­ian writer Leo Tol­stoy, who appar­ent­ly did read it, includ­ing Desmond’s shots at him.

Tol­stoy men­tioned it in his own book “What Is Art?”, but Tol­stoy says noth­ing com­pli­men­ta­ry. He uses Desmond’s book as an easy exam­ple of what’s fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong with the artists of his own time.

Tol­stoy sum­ma­rizes the book’s mes­sage thus:

Right is not the off­spring of doc­trine but of pow­er. All laws, com­mand­ments, or doc­trines as to not doing to anoth­er what you do not wish done to you, have no inher­ent author­i­ty what­ev­er, but receive it only from the club, the gal­lows, and the sword. A man tru­ly free is under no oblig­a­tion to obey any injunc­tion, human or divine. Obe­di­ence is the sign of the degenerate.

“The author has evi­dent­ly by him­self, inde­pen­dent­ly of Niet­zsche, come to the same con­clu­sions which are pro­fessed by the new artists,” Tol­stoy goes on to con­clude, per­haps unchar­i­ta­bly toward the oth­er artists.

Oth­er­wise, Might Is Right most­ly lan­guished after its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion, rid­ing on the coat­tails of Niet­zsche as oth­ers described it as the same phi­los­o­phy as Niet­zsche but with an “Amer­i­can expres­sion.” That may just be a euphemistic way to say it enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly hat­ed Jews and non-whites. Its Social Dar­win­ism was pop­u­lar but not excep­tion­al and cer­tain­ly not revolutionary.

The book like­ly would have been for­got­ten com­plete­ly if the eth­ni­cal­ly Jew­ish Howard Lev­ey had­n’t picked it up, seen the need to laun­der it of its most odi­ous anti­semitism and slurs, then re-pack­aged sec­tions of it as his own under the name “Anton Szan­dor LaVey” to become the first sec­tion of The Satan­ic Bible.

We’ll return to this, but LaVey res­cued from the dust­bin of his­to­ry a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry book that had essen­tial­ly said “take what you want by what­ev­er force nec­es­sary because you’re an indi­vid­ual and you’re free” — but he excised the explic­it basis on which you base that free­dom to mere­ly imply it.

The ideas remained the same, but LaVey had moved them from lit­er­al­ly using the n‑word into “forced bus­ing” ter­ri­to­ry. After his appro­pri­a­tion of Might Is Right was rec­og­nized in 1987, LaVey con­tin­ued to praise the book publicly.

What I saw should not have been in print. It was more than inflam­ma­to­ry. It was sheer blas­phe­my. As I turned the pages, more blas­phe­my met my eyes. Crazy as it was, I found myself charged at the words. Peo­ple just did­n’t write that way.

For­ward to “Might Is Right”, Anton Szan­dor LaVey (Octo­ber 1996)

Between the under­ly­ing ideas and that sort of endorse­ment, it’s no sur­prise that flocks of rugged indi­vid­u­al­ists would want to read for them­selves the same pure work that had inspired their hero. Since it had been long enough to fall out of pro­tect­ed copy­right sta­tus, mul­ti­ple small pub­lish­ers were able to reprint the book and it’s dis­sem­i­nat­ed wide­ly on the Inter­net now.

In com­ment­ing on it, Might Is Right’s boost­ers will often describe the book and its prose as “out­ra­geous”, “rad­i­cal”, or “elec­tri­fy­ing”, but it real­ly is the lazi­est form of reac­tionary pol­i­tics in every way, down to “there are too many divorces these days.” It is a defense of the struc­tures and hier­ar­chies of the sta­tus quo, defend­ing inequal­i­ties as they are because, by exist­ing, they prove they’re the nat­ur­al ones that should exist. It wor­ships vio­lence as not just a legit­i­mate source of author­i­ty but the only source of authority.

Human rights and wrongs are not deter­mined by Jus­tice, but by Might. Dis­guise it as you may, the naked sword is still king-mak­er and king-break­er, as of yore. All oth­er the­o­ries are lies and — lures.

The sci­ence fic­tion author Robert Hein­lein wrote some­thing sim­i­lar in his 1959 nov­el Star­ship Troop­ers; he put it in the mouth of an author-sur­ro­gate high school teacher and intend­ed it to be tak­en as seri­ous wisdom.

When adapt­ed for a movie, Dutch-born direc­tor Paul Ver­ho­even, whose for­ma­tive years were under the Nazi occu­pa­tion, decid­ed to uti­lize the same speech but with­in the con­text of a satire of fas­cist propaganda.

Hein­lein’s polit­i­cal writ­ing need­ed no mod­i­fi­ca­tion to work as self-par­o­dy.

This is inter­est­ing because, at the time, review­ers had to won­der whether a name so over-the-top as “Rag­nar Red­beard” with con­tent so obvi­ous­ly absurd was­n’t intend­ed as reduc­tio ad absurdum. 

“We have been a lit­tle puz­zled, it must be con­fessed, to know whether Dr. Red­beard’s work is to be tak­en quite seri­ous­ly,” The Humane Review won­dered in 1900, an exam­ple of Poe’s Law near­ly a cen­tu­ry before the Inter­net. But Desmond was dead­ly seri­ous, and more impor­tant­ly, mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of angry young men have tak­en him dead­ly seri­ous­ly as they take their inspi­ra­tion from it.

If you’re a lib­er­al who under­stands that the best way to fight bad ideas is to pro­vide greater expo­sure to them, this should be good news, espe­cial­ly giv­en how poor­ly writ­ten and obvi­ous­ly grotesque the work is. Sun­light is the best dis­in­fec­tant, robust debate in the mar­ket­place of ideas, and so on.

A year ago this month, a 19-year-old mass shoot­er attacked the Gilroy Gar­lic Fes­ti­val in Cal­i­for­nia, killing three as well as him­self, and injur­ing 17 more while stream­ing it. As he did, he told his audi­ence to read Might Is Right.

Our pop­u­lar his­to­ry edu­ca­tion, from pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum to enter­tain­ment, is not going to be ful­ly accu­rate on any sub­ject, but fas­cism is a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult myth for us to han­dle in the Unit­ed States.

His­to­ry class­es are lin­ear and often don’t get much past the Sec­ond World War before it’s time for all the fund­ing-deter­min­ing test­ing to take place. Stu­dents get left with an under­stand­ing of “Amer­i­ca good, Nazis (and Sovi­ets) bad.”

Our com­mon knowl­edge reduces fas­cism to be entire­ly equiv­a­lent to Nazi Ger­many, embod­ied whol­ly and per­son­al­ly in Adolf Hitler. We’ve come to let him rep­re­sent tran­scen­dent, inhu­man evil as com­plete­ly as Euro­pean Chris­tian­i­ty let Jesus Christ do the same for the con­cept of goodness.

Though intend­ing crit­i­cism, seri­ous peo­ple today still unin­ten­tion­al­ly ele­vate the pro­pa­gan­da of Leni Riefen­stahl’s images and Joseph Goebbels’ rhetoric with the result that we view the Third Reich as more tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced than all oth­er gov­ern­ments of their day, uber-effi­cient in indus­try, and supreme­ly capa­ble in war rather than the cor­rupt, inco­her­ent, and self-sab­o­tag­ing klep­toc­ra­cy it was.

There is a ten­den­cy, for some rea­son, for many to believe that morals and empa­thy are arti­fi­cial con­straints hold­ing humans back from their full, awful poten­tial, and they are drawn to that con­cept as like a for­bid­den spell.

Hitler and the Nazis thus become an almost super­nat­ur­al aber­ra­tion, out­side of and a break from all human his­to­ry before and since. They are meant to be scary but to have noth­ing to do with us beyond being fright­en­ing antagonists.

For that rea­son, to take events con­tem­po­rary to us or take actions of our own ances­tors and com­pare them with Hitler, the Nazis, and fas­cism risks the imme­di­ate response that you’ve engaged in an insult­ing hyperbole.

The phrase “con­cen­tra­tion camp” has already been swept into one, tiny cor­ner of all his­to­ry and equat­ed with “exter­mi­na­tion camp” at the expense of all sim­i­lar ver­sions, before and after. But the Holo­caust was an end, not the begin­ning, and the Nazis do not stand as the only fas­cists in his­to­ry, or even the first.

Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni took a com­mon sort of Ital­ian orga­ni­za­tion and turned it into some­thing else, giv­ing us the last­ing name for a com­mon kind of polit­i­cal move­ment: Fascism.

Many sim­i­lar move­ments exist­ed through­out Europe before and after the Sec­ond World War. When the Nazis rolled their tanks into Aus­tria, they pushed out the Catholic nation­al­ist “Father­land Front” to replace Aus­tro-Fas­cism with their own pan-Ger­man Fas­cism. Roma­nia had the Nation­al Chris­t­ian Par­ty as well as the Iron Guard. Hun­gary and Yugoslavia had their Fas­cist polit­i­cal fronts, but so also did France, Great Britain, and yes, the Unit­ed States.

Umber­to Eco’s 1995 essay “Ur-Fas­cism” famous­ly tries to make a coher­ent bun­dle of all these dis­parate groups, start­ing from his own expe­ri­ence as a boy in Italy dur­ing the war and know­ing noth­ing but Fascism.

Eco comes up with four­teen fea­tures that func­tion as some­thing of a clus­ter for genre, like selec­tive pop­ulism and cult of tradition.

Eco deter­mines:

“Fas­cism became an all-pur­pose term because one can elim­i­nate from a fas­cist regime one or more fea­tures, and it will still be rec­og­niz­able as fascist.”

It turns out, one can even elim­i­nate regimes and a pop­u­lar fol­low­ing to find exam­ples of it. In the next install­ment of this series, we’ll exam­ine what fas­cist rea­son­ing (plain­ly stat­ed) looks like, and why under­stand­ing it is cru­cial to rec­og­niz­ing why the so-called hypocrisy Amer­i­can lib­er­als are fond of point­ing out among con­ser­v­a­tives actu­al­ly is entire­ly self-consistent.

Jump to Part One | Two | Three | Four

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