It’s not always code for something else

James Bloodworth ponders the difficulty of explaining fanaticism and the fact that sophisticated people are often very bad at it.

Back in the 1930s, attempts to explain fascism famously tripped up many leading intellectuals of the time. Hitler’s demands to expand the Third Reich were taken by many otherwise sophisticated people as code for something else. Was it not true, after all, that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed punitive and unreasonable conditions on Germany? As Paul Berman noted in his book, Terror and Liberalism, despite the SS repeatedly reaffirming at its death camps that “here there is no why”, for much of the left there was always a “why”.

Many people seem to miss the fact (or to be unwilling to face it) that the violence and mass murder are ends in themselves. Party time: let’s kill all the kids in that school.

In an edition of the British pacifist newspaper Peace News, the Marquess of Tavistock, who sat on the national council for the Peace Pledge Union, blamed German aggression not on the lunacy of National Socialism, but instead on the “very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany’s financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialised vice, and by their monopolisation of certain professions”.

Well that’s a funny kind of “peace.”

The real spark of fascistic violence must always and everywhere be poverty and hardship, or so it was assumed; hence the multiple attempts to conflate the repression of the Palestinians with 9/11 – despite the fact that al-Qaeda was and remains ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

In reality the sheer irrationality of violent Islamism should have been obvious when in the years following 9/11 young fanatics started (sometimes successfully) trying to blow up nightclubs. The British-born Islamists who plotted in 2004 to murder clubbers in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London did not after all cite Palestine or imperialism as their Casus belli, but instead gleefully talked about murdering “those slags, dancing around”.

In other words, it was our liberalism that the would-be bombers despised, rather than our inability to be sufficiently liberal.

Indeed, as with almost all fanatical religious movements, an obsession with the way women behave goes right to the heart of Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the author of the Mein Kampf of Islamism,Milestones, embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on the back of a visit to the United States, where he found himself appalled at the freedom afforded to American women.

Not sophistication but plain old dominance. It’s as crude as a bull moose in rut.



  1. Athywren says

    I was thinking something a little similar to this earlier today… if we took some of the real world’s antagonists and wrote them into a work of fiction, they would be derided as the work of a hack writer. Such shallow motivations, surely the author could come up with a better backstory for these characters? Sure, they want to kill all the gay people they meet, but why? They hate because they hate because they hate? What an unsympathetic character! A truly ham-fisted foray into the literary realm. And yet, they’re real people.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    Many people seem to miss the fact (or to be unwilling to face it) that the violence and mass murder are ends in themselves.

    That could well explain Hitler–but I don’t think it explains Germany. They’re not a nation of sociopaths who enjoy killing Jews, even if that’s exactly what Hitler was. They embraced him, and went along with him, for other reasons.

    I might be guilty myself of explaining way “monsters,” but I think (and lots of folks around here regularly make the point) that it’s important to realize that much, possibly most, evil, is not the work of monsters. If we don’t realize that, we become blind to our own capacity to do great evil.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    … even Bush could be right about something, even though usually by accident.

    True. Even there, though, there’s a question. Sure, they hate our freedom–but why do they hate our freedom so much more than they hate the freedom of the Swiss? It’s just not as simple as, “Look at them over there, all free like that! Let’s fly airplanes into their tallest buildings!”

  4. says

    Well, the Swiss are not quite so loud-mouthed about their freedom. And the don’t to the same degree insist that their freedom includes the freedom of their companies to ride roughshod over other people. So there is a difference there.

  5. steffp says

    I think Bloodworth’s arguments can be better understood in the context of Haidt & Graham’s “When Morality Opposes Justice”.
    Extreme conservatives, fascists and religious fundamentalists value ingroup/outgroup behavior, hierarchy and purity in a way that average Westerners – who value empathy and justice as superior to those topics- just can’t imagine. That is why the Caliphate and fascist Germany seem to be comparable. The SS motto “Our honor is fidelity”, the Führer cult, and the abstruse theories about the “purity of German blood” and the “decadence of emancipation and jazz” are paralleled by IS’s close-cropped Salafist idea that only one Sunni sect is Muslim, while all the others are not, thus avoiding the prohibition of war against Muslims, and the tenet of principled inferiority of all other beliefs. The installment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph, religious and secular leader, and an extreme interpretation of halal, purity show in fact similarities.
    One may dissent on the economic background of fascism and the Caliphate. Fascism traditionally requires a pretty developed industrial basis, while the Caliphate is pretty rural oriented seventh century, but with huge oil resources underneath.
    In a practical sense, the Caliphate is as morally rotten – lack of empathy, lack of equal justice, lack of respect for life – as German fascism. No excuses apply. Of course the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the thoughtless US and British support for whatever Likud cooks up, etc play a role on the recruiting side. But the mindset of IS fighters is 7th/8th century, the high time of Islamic expansion, complete with levying jyza (tax) on Christians and demanding dhimmi, submission and second-rate citizenship. And, of course, slaying of idolators who won’t convert to Islam. Welcome to Selim the Grim.

    Why do they hate our freedom? Because they see it as decadence, adultery, thoughtlessness, lack of education and discipline, animal-like behavior. Sayyid Qutb, the stylite of extreme Muslim fundamentalism, once described as abhorrent an encounter on board the ship that brought him to the US: a tipsy woman invited him (a lifelong virgin) into her cabin. The sheer horror! We in the West tend to reduce the taboos of our forefathers. Horse meat on a Friday, why not. But for a purity-valuing fundi, the idea of having ham&eggs or a beer is unspeakably icky. Vomit-inducing. As is the idea of soccer player uniforms that don’t cover the elbows and knees. Or the visibility of any part of female anatomy.

    Only reflections about Hitchen’s errors keep me from advocating drastic measures…

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    The reluctance to see characteristics which demand decision or action seems universal.

    German territorial ambitions? But Germany is the light of progress!
    Nazi racism and imperialism? Versailles made them do it! (no regard for the fact that the Germans never paid the indemnities and that German industry received billions in capital from the victors)
    Pedophile priests? Those ‘seductive’ altar boys must be guilty! And what about all the noble priests in Hollywood films?
    Rape Culture? Not all men!

  7. Ben Finney says

    This is part of a more general disconnect: people find it difficult to take extremists at their word, and seek to interpret their words (and sometimes even their actions) as having a different meaning.

    When the extremist makes plain what they want, and why they want it, but we don’t find that a compelling rationale, we have great trouble accepting that’s what they *really* mean.

    Oh, religious fundamentalists can’t *really* mean they want the world to end in chaos and war to purify our souls; that’s just rhetorical, they must mean something else. Oh, Hamas and Israel can’t *really* mean they want Gaza to belong exclusively to their co-religionists and for the competing religionists to be purged from the earth; they’re just competing over resources, and all their faith claims are just a cover.

    It’s all bullshit, and we need to take extremists at their word that yes, they *do* believe what they say they believe, and they *do* want what they say they want — and respond accordingly. We don’t have to believe it; we *do* have to prepare for the consequences of *their* explicitly-stated beliefs and goals.

  8. jesse says

    I have some serious issues with this kind of analysis, largely because it ends up being ahistorical.

    The Nazis didn’t just pop up by magic. There’s specific circumstances that made it possible, and calling it lunacy doesn’t help, not when you want to make sure this kind of stuff does not happen — before the extremists get elected to office.

    Fascism happened because a particular constellation of factors made it easier for Hitler to take power. Heck, Hitler himself was arguably not necessary — there were plenty of other competent politicians that might have done it as well. He was just a better campaigner. (Just as George Bush the younger was not terribly necessary to the neocon agenda).

    Pulling in the remark about Jewish “provocation” is just plain silly. Nobody takes seriously that idea (at least no mainstream, reasonably serious historians). But holy hell, ignoring the fact that a wrecked economy gave the fascists an opening seems to me to be back in the old “then Germans is crazy” kind of moralistic analysis that doesn’t offer you any really good political strategies for fighting these things. Because that is what it is: a political battle.

    German fascism arose at a time when there were many national “renewal” movements in Europe. THe fact that there was a worldwide depression happening in every capitalist country might have a little to do with why such movements got any traction. We see that in Greece right now, and in the US — ever wonder why the Tea Party movement tends to find its base in the suburban folks who historically worked for a living, and among those who are often the losers in the new economy?

    This isn’t saying that fascism is a code word for anything, and it wasn’t just a bunch of nihilists. It’s just recognizing that these things happen for a freaking reason. In Germany in particular the ruling classes made a pretty serious effort at attacking the German left labor movement. A similar thing happened in Italy and Japan. Well, when you do that there isn’t any avenue of political expression left except the fascists.

    And I don’t know anyone who knows anything about the subject conflating the Palestinians with anything else except the folks who think that every attack on the US must by definition have a single origin, as though it were the evil plot of doctor Klong or something. Every expression of Islamic fundamentalism is a bit different — yes, they share some ideologies, but it reminds me of the people who used to say that any leftists revolutionaries had to be operating at the behest of the Russians. Local injustices could never have anything to do with it, because those benighted savages would never question the value of capitalism on their own, right?

    ISIS appeared because of a power vacuum. The extremists had a political opportunity and ran with it. This is not the same as the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. 9/11-type Terrorism and this kind of political movement that ISIS represents are very, very different things.

    We talk about western liberal values, but let me tell ya, we haven’t been promoting those very well, given who our BFFs in the region are. So maybe the folks who join movements like ISIS are taking us at our word.

    You could bomb the hell out of ISIS tomorrow. And two minutes later another movement with a different name would crop up. Why do you think that is?

    It’s not about not taking people at their word. It’s about understanding how this shit happens so you can prevent it. And unfortunately we in the west have a history of creating situations where ISIS and their ilk has an opportunity — because we’re not willing to do things like not give royal theocracies money. After all, such dictatorships can be bought and it’s a lot easier to do that than to deal with the aspirations of the folks that live there. It’s easier to find every “them Arabs be crazy” reason to just assume they are all a bunch of savages, rather than asking how people organize to oppose such extremist movements — and by the way, they do.

  9. Jeff Engel says

    Nothing’s keeping us from adopting a complex explanation for complex phenomena. Some people won’t take much “provocation” to be illiberal fanatics – maybe none at all. Some others won’t take much of it before their more tolerant or cooperative impulses are drowned out by their more hateful ones – or if they do take more than a bit of it, they GET more than a bit of it and away they go. Some others will reluctantly go along with a fanatical movement because it seems to, or just does, offer a working expression of socioeconomic grievance. And plenty just get caught up in a tide.

    It’s not a view that you’ll sum up in a sound bite anytime soon, and policies for responding to such a grab-bag of causes are going to be even harder to articulate and practice. But if that’s the world we’ve got, we’re lousy rationalists if we don’t accept it and work with it.

  10. brucegorton says

    A Masked Avenger

    I think it does, or more accurately the liberal side of the issue describes exactly how Hitler managed to get so much power.

    The average German liberal, would have looked at Hitler and probably said something along the lines of “Well he is just saying that deeply racist stuff about the Jews to appeal to the idiots, he doesn’t mean all of that. No he means an aggressive pro-growth economic policy and doing away with the oppressive treaty of Versailles.”

    Some of them probably even voted for the Nazi party – because to them the racism and hatred that so defines it for us today, would be like the hyper-religious crap of America’s current crop of politicians.

    Not to be taken seriously in serious circles.

    So they didn’t counter him very effectively, constantly trying to deal with his economic policies without addressing the elephant in the room. They focussed on the little lies, and let the big ones go unchallenged.

    People were dedicated to being reasonable, rather than actually using their reason. This is why I have a profound distrust of the serious.

    So Hitler ended up with enough of the vote to actually seize power, much like the Republicans have repeatedly done, because a lot of people didn’t recognise that the Nazis actually meant the crazy stuff.

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