Web Search nikon coolpix digital cameras The Miserable Annals of the Earth: Ah, Billmon

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ah, Billmon

Billmon's got the goods today. Well, he usually does. But check this out.

Just up on the page, he's juxtaposed a great many contemporary political quotes with some very stingingly appropriate quotes from George Orwell. Here's one I like --

"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable."
George Orwell
Politics and the English Language

I've long strugged with trying to come up with some meaningful definition for the word 'fascism', or its derivative, 'fascist'. It's a word you hear a lot when you're a pseudo-intellectual like I am; other pseudo-intellectuals throw it around a lot, and, yeah, I can't disagree with Mr. Orwell... most often, it seems to be one of those demagogue's gimme words, an entirely subjective (but always negative) phrase that means whatever its speaker happens to be pointing to at the time, like 'indecency' or 'family values' or 'support the troops' or 'I will restore integrity to the office of the Presidency'.

I suppose the first time I realized the difficulty of using the word 'fascism' in an argument was back in college, when a guy I knew back then (okay, as with most of these anecdotes, it was Slappy) advised me that in his opinion, both Captain America and Batman were fascists -- in fact, every superhero was a fascist by strict definition, because by strict definition, a fascist is anyone who has a certain specific world view and who enforces that world view on others through violence.

Slappy did this a lot, and I imagine, he still does, whenever the exigencies of his profession allow him to actually try to win an argument with someone. (I put it that way because I imagine that editors are much like other bosses; they don't like to be contradicted, especially convincingly. Similarly, I can only imagine that arguing with fans is also a losing proposition in the long run. So Slappy probably only rarely has the opportunity to really verbally bulldoze someone into acquiescence the way he often used to do to me back in college. God, he must miss those days.) He learned all his debating techniques from Carol Kalish, and one of Carol's primary precepts is 'always control all the terms and definitions of any argument you may happen to be in'. Slappy's insistence on defining 'fascist' from the outset as being something that all superheroes pretty inarguably are meant he had essentially set up a straw argument and handed me the inevitably losing end of it.

But he did that a lot, and, well, I walked into it a lot, mostly because back then, many of my opinions were entirely emotional and/or sentimental, and would not hold up to the merest whiff of logical or reasonably analysis.

In terms of this 'fascism' thing, though, well, I'm just not sure.

What is 'fascism'? Wikipedia defines it as follows: "Fascism is a radical political ideology that combines elements of corporatism, authoritarianism, nationalism, militarism, anti-anarchism, anti-communism and anti-liberalism."

Okay, so Wikipedia is basically flipping its lips and going 'wubba wubba wubba' at the question. Fine. But, wait -- further down, they give us at least a little meat to chew on --

The word "fascism" comes from fascio (plural: fasci), which may mean "bundle," as in a political or militant group or a nation, but also from the fasces (rods bundled around an axe), which were an ancient Roman symbol of the authority of magistrates. The Italian Fascisti were also known as Black Shirts for their style of uniform incorporating a black shirt (See Also: political color).

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as "a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition"[3].

A recent definition is that by former Columbia University Professor Robert O. Paxton:

"Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." [4]

Ah, if only we'd had the Internet back in 1980.

Slappy's original dissertation (Batman and Captain America being fascists, I mean) apparently sprang from some interview he'd read somewhere, in some fanzine, in which Steve Englehart (reportedly) had essentially stated (according to Slappy) that "Batman isn't a fascist -- Batman's right!" This bothered Slappy, who seemed to feel that whether or not one is a 'fascist' or not depends on one's objective actions and behavior, rather than a subjective judgement as to whether or not those actions and that behavior are, in fact, 'correct' within their context.

My tendency would be to agree with Slappy in this; whether or not someone is a fascist should depend on whether or not their actions and behavior are fascistic. However, I'll note wryly at this point that Mr. Englehart seems to be a student of Orwell, at least to the extent that he agreed with Orwell's statement that fascism means nothing except something negative.

Me, I think the whole issue comes out of sloppy thinking. 'Fascism' is, apparently, an entirely subjective term -- one of those "I know it when I see it" things. Yet what I'm taking away from even the limited research I've done is a commonality to every definition: fascism is a social behavior, something that groups do. An individual cannot be a fascist unless he or she is acting as a representative of a fascist group. And a fascist group is, apparently, an authoritarian group with an agenda that it attempts to advance through violence.

Calling Captain America, or Batman, or any individual superhero, a 'fascist' is just, on the face of it, wrong, when they are acting as individuals. In fact, superheroes in general, by the normal or mainstream superhero model, cannot be fascists. Superheroes do not prosecute an agenda. They defend the status quo. Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme may well have become fascist, when they decided to stop fighting crime and world conquerers, and to set their Earth to rights themselves, using their superhuman powers and advanced technology to create what they considered to be a Utopia, using violence when necessary (including involuntary brainwashing of their enemies). But the Avengers, the JLA, the Defenders, the X-Men... and all their individual members... these characters are not 'fascist'. Yeah, they have a certain code of behavior and when they see someone violating it, they tend to swing down and beat the living bejesus out of the offender... but that code of behavior is an extremely basic one that, as a general rule, underlies the acceptable civil, social behavior of mainstream society.

Spider-Man may punch the crap out of guys robbing a jewelry store, but he doesn't close down abortion clinics or kick hell out of fags. Superman may stop the Parasite from forcibly draining the life force of everyone on the Eastern seaboard, and if he has to, he may very well pummel the Parasite into broken, bruised unconsciousness in the process -- but he doesn't shut down nuclear power plants or forcibly repatriate Federal wilderness areas to Native American tribes. The Avengers may protect Earth from alien invasions. but they don't intervene in the Florida vote counting process when a Presidential election is in question.

If superheroes did this sort of thing, enforcing their own particular views of right and wrong with repulsor rays, heat vision, magic lassos and mjolnir hammer strikes when necessary on a mass, social level -- if, in fact, Al Gore were currently the U.S. President on Earth-Marvel because Hawkeye, the Vision, Goliath, the Scarlet Witch, and the Wasp paid a visit to the Supreme Court and advised them that ruling any other way could very well end up with them finding their personal automobiles at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, for example -- then, yeah, you could say that the Avengers were fascists. (Given that our current 'President' is in office at least in part because of Republican operatives staging violent demonstrations to shut down recounts in Florida during the 2000 election, you can certainly say that our current Administration is a fascist one -- but few would argue that.)

Back to the 'Avengers threaten the Supremes on behalf of Gore' scenario -- It's a story that on one level I'd like to write; I'd be especially interested in scripting the inevitable super-battle when the Masters of Evil showed up to brawl in front of the Supreme Court building on behalf of Cheney & Company... however, on another level, I reluctantly admit, superheroes should be kept outside of politics. The first time I read an Avengers story in which it's revealed that Iron Man is a registered Republican and a staunch Bush supporter, well, it's gonna cost Marvel some circulation.

Ultimately, this is the overwhelming, very pragmatic reason why comic book superheroes will never be 'fascist' -- fascism requires group identification with some particular ideology, and when you start doing that in comic books, you very quickly alienate large segments of your target market. One panel of Batman nodding along with Rush Limbaugh on the radio while he's tooling the Batmobile around downtown Gotham and sale's figures on the book are going to take a big hit... although, on the other hand, you can bet Rush would exult about it in his next radio show and then sales might very well improve, with all the Dittoheads rushing out to their comics shops to pick up a copy... I don't know. It's probably just as well neither company wants to get into this level of realism in their respective universes.

So, the question 'are superheroes fascists' is pretty much a nonsensical one, given what fascism actually seems to be. Ah, if only I'd known that back in the day...


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