Friday, August 29, 2008

On American Fascism: Divine & Rapturous Violence

“Recently a disturbing book came to my attention, and as I read it, it became clear to me that perhaps the most significant development in what we may call “illuminated politics” in the twenty-first century is happening now in the United States. The fact that Americans will soon be electing a new president only adds a certain urgency and immediacy to this concern. Some believe that with the end of the Bush administration, the influence of the Christian Right on American politics will wane. Yet the Nazis dropped below the radar after Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923; a decade later they were in power.

If I’m beating a dead horse here, I ask the reader’s indulgence. The book in question is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. In it, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, paints a troubling picture of the rise of what he argues may be a form of American-Christian fascism. This isn’t the kind of neo-Nazi “white power” sensibility that has been on the fringes of American society for some time. There are no swastikas, no Hitler salutes, no armbands or kitschy brown shirts associated with this group, although its appeal to an increasingly disenfranchised sector of American society is similar to the appeal National Socialism had to disenfranchised Germans in the early 1930s. The “American fascists” Hedges speaks of belong to a huge, well-organized, well-funded, and disturbingly politically well-placed movement dedicated to dismantling the secular state and replacing it with a kind of authoritarian theocracy, based on a numbingly literal reading (or misreading) of the Bible. Through schools, the media, pressure groups, and lobbyists, and through its growing presence in the American halls of political power, the Christian Right, Hedges argues, is gearing up to fundamentally (the pun would be inexcusable if the concern wasn’t so real) alter the American way of life, and through this, ultimately, the way of life for the rest of the world as well.

Like many encountered in this book, Hedges’ American fascists are unhappy with the modern world, especially the American modern world, which they see as decadent, depraved, and heading for disaster. Sexual license, homosexuality, feminism, liberalism, popular culture, the welfare state, foreigners, and a host of other ills are pulling what was once, in their eyes, a Christian nation down the tube. Although I hesitate to point out the parallels too strongly, as in the years leading up to National Socialism in Germany, there is among the followers of this belief a sense of some impending doom, some unavoidable cataclysm. Historians have argued that works like Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and others of a similar tone, which appeared in Germany in the years following World War I, helped prime the German psyche to accept the idea of some vast, irrevocable alteration in the shape of things and the need for strong leaders to find a way through the chaos. Hedges argues that the horror of September 11 created a similar sensibility in many Americans, and that the Christian Right is playing on the understandable fears that it and other terrorist attacks have generated. That the minds behind September 1l and other terrorist attacks, in the United States and elsewhere, are as narrow, fanatical, and oblivious to human suffering as those informing the Christian Right (at least according to Hedges) only adds to the sense that the affairs of the West in the early twenty-first century have reached, or are about to reach, a crisis point.

I will leave readers of Hedges’ book to discover—if they are not already aware of it—the worryingly sophisticated network of media, educational, social, and political control that his American fascists already have in place and which, in the event of another September 1l or similar catastrophe, they will speedily use to offer and assume a beneficent leadership of the nation. But these “illuminated” totalitarians aren’t dependent on a terrorist attack, economic meltdown, or increasingly likely natural disaster (probably stemming from global warming) in order to come forth and take their rightful place as rulers of the land, although the downturn in the U.S. economy at the time of writing is the sort of thing they’re banking on. The central myth motivating their actions is the imminent end of the world as we know it, a version of the last days patched together from a selective reading of the Book of Revelation. At the heart of this is what they call the Rapture, when Jesus returns to earth and all his “true believers” are whisked up to heaven, while the rest of humanity is “left behind” to face an unimaginable ordeal of bloodcurdling torture and horror, the “time of tribulation.”

I say “unimaginable,” but this is incorrect, as a series of Christian Right bestsellers, collected under the title Left Behind, goes to some lengths to do just that. Reading the descriptions of the righteous violence meted out to those who refuse to let Jesus “into their hearts,” or to those who are not quite Christian enough, with bodies bursting, heads exploding, torsos slashed in two—all in very graphic detail—I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a form of religious or apocalyptic pornography, a kind of sick spiritual sadism. Children have a front row seat in heaven while they watch their parents, who didn’t make the grade, receive the swift retribution of the Lord. Even Dante in his worst moments didn’t depict the punishments of hell with such obscene relish, but then Dante is a much better writer than the authors of these holy gore fests.

I point out popular culture is often a better indication of a society’s beliefs than its “official” sources. If this is true, then a substantial segment of the American consciousness is anticipating an imminent holy crusade against all those that it believes are not “one of us.” Candidates for this bill are the usual suspects: homosexuals, feminists, Jews, “people of color,” liberals, socialists, Muslims (adherents of a “Satanic” religion), and so on. That America is currently not right with God is the Christian Right’s complaint, but come the Rapture, that will change. The belief in the “cleansing” power of religious violence as a means of political action, as if some holy “white tornado” will come and blow away all the social “dirt,” has recurred throughout Western civilization. Sadly, it’s an option that many, confronted with the complexities of modern life, find attractive. If the sales of the Left Behind fantasies are any indication, millions of Americans do. Violence as a means of ushering in some putative new age is, of course, not limited to the right. Marx fantasized about the bourgeoisie hanging from lampposts. But I don’t think an imminent Marxist upheaval is on the books just now.”

-Gary Lachman,(Excerpt:” An American Fascism?,”, 8.12.08 Image: Ary Scheffer (Dordrecht, 1795 - Argenteuil, 1858), "Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile", Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier -M. Bard Paris, 1855).

No comments: