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Everyday Fascism: Revisiting Hitler—Thinking About Race, Religion, & Politics in America

by J. Kameron Carter on October 16, 2010

Post image for Everyday Fascism: Revisiting Hitler—Thinking About Race, Religion, & Politics in America

This morning the New York Times did a piece on an exhibit launched this past Friday in Berlin at the German Historical Museum. The exhibit is called “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime” and offers a fascinating look into what may be called the ordinariness, even the everydayness, of the fascism of the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to the Times article, the curators at the German Historical Museum felt that this was a fitting time for the show.

Why fitting? Fitting because Germany is experiencing, as are many European countries like France, the Netherlands, and the UK to name just a few, an uptick in xenophobia. Moreover, this xenophobia has a nationalist-religious cast to it, being directed at immigrant populations, particularly Muslims.

(PS: I’m reading an interesting book on this phenomenon in France called The Politics of the Veil, which in many ways is about the crisis of French universalism considered at the site of the Muslim-as-immigrant or Muslim-as-cultural outsider. A fascinating book, indeed; well-written and with ramifications clearly beyond the French scene. But I digress.)

The exhibit at the German Historical Museum reinforces a point that historians have been making for some time now regarding Germany during the Nazi years: “Hitler did not corral the Germans,” writes the Times, “as much as the Germans elevated Hitler.” In other words, the exhibit is meant to call attention “to the society that nurtured and empowered [Hitler].” If this in fact is what the exhibit is about, it is a sobering exhibit indeed.

What we must understand and what the exhibit shows is that Nazism was a security measure taken in the name of the defense and protection of society and to enact a certain vision of society. This vision was that of a monolithic social order, one that was interpreted as decaying because it had come to be “infected”. The defense of society called for its purification of all outsiders, of all who were inauthentic citizens, from the impure and other social contaminants; in short, from those who we’re truly citizens.

The security measures taken up within Nazism could not, however, sustain themselves. Hitler was needed; but more than Hitler was needed. The securities measures for the defense of society, of the homeland, had to be sustained at the level of the population or the people both as a whole and in its individual or micro-units. It had to be sustained at the macro- and the micro-levels as a project of salvation. Or as Michel Foucault would say, as a project of salvation for all and for each: Omnes et singulatum.

Nazism is a window onto both sides of the logic of fascism as nationalism and patriotism. It displays how fascism is a technology of people-wide governance, on the one hand, as taken up by the individual citizen in the most innocent practices of everyday life, on the other. The exhibit in its own way points to this double phenomenon and in so doing points to something that must be paused over because it is central to the workings, indeed the political theological workings, I would say, of nations, particularly, Western nations.

And that crucial thing is this: The nation-form is religious in character. It functions like a family, as an “imagined” family community. It is an imagining, replete with the image of a model to which its citizenry must aspire (in the U.S. the patriarchs or “founding fathers” do this work representing the true because original American). Not only in this respect is it a “fatherland”; it has a “mother” tongue or a proper language (hence, the debates in the U.S. over English as the national language) and it extols its “maiden” culture to which the one who would be a citizen-subject must be assimilated (thus, the emphasis on assimilation into American life as part of the immigration debates).

But in all of this, I propose that we see the nation as a mimicry of what in Christian theology is called Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), which I have alluded above. The nation form is mimetic of salvation, trying to enact its own version of a realized Eschatology, a Utopia of Civilization. It represents a reconfiguration of salvation into the processes of national existence and the making of subjects for the nation. The end-game, we might say, of this social process in which nations do the work of “salvation” for all those admitted into its precincts is the realization of a particular kind of community, the nation as it ought to be. Again, in theological language, it is the realization of an Eschaton, a “Kingdom-community.” Or as John Winthrop, one of the founding Puritans in America, put it, and that Ronald Reagan reclaimed in the 1980s: it is the founding of a “city on a hill.”

Here’s my point: The nation-form mimics Christian existence because it is part of the legacy of Western Christendom and is part of the failures of Western Christianity. The nation-form arises from the ecclesial form, and in fact rests on a problematic mode of disciplining the body and the subject; a problematic mode, in other words, of discipleship.

The Hitler exhibit gestures towards, it seems to me, a fair bit of this problematic. Hence, the sobering nature of the exhibit. (See the slide show of NY Times pictures here and a 360-degree panorama of the exhibit here). The exhibit brings home the fact that fascism was a grassroots (and in some sense always is a grassroots) and not just a top-down reality. It is a reality that at the level of the micro-politics of everyday life, “the people” participate in or give their support to. “The people” make it happen. And thus, “the people” or “the public” sustain it. The exhibit displays this by showing how basic things like basic “household items [had] Nazi logos and colors.”

Moreover, being a Christian intellectual and theologian, I must also note the comment made in the Times article about “the tapestry, a tribute to the union of church, state, and party, [that] was woven by a church congregation at the behest of their priest” (emphasis mine). We see here how Christianity itself was a site where citizenship (in a Nazi mold, to be sure, but citizenship no less) was being worked out. It was involved in the social processes by which true and false citizenship, a true (Aryan) subject-of-the-nation and false or incomplete one was being an adjudicated.

But why should you or I give two flips about this German interest story. Truth is, I’ve alluded to an answer to this. But now I’ll be explicit.

You and I should care because we here in the U.S. are ourselves at a dangerous moment of potential fascism in our history.

I am referring to issues of race and religion as sites for uniquely narrating the crisis of American culture and politics today. The crisis has been afoot for some time now, certainly since 9/11 but exasperated since, perhaps even by, the election of the first black person to the presidency of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 released not only the better angels of our nature, the angels of new possibility for what our beloved country could be about internally and how it would posture itself in relationship to the rest of the world. But the election let loose as well some demons, what might be called the lesser angels of our nature—demons that have never fully been exorcised from the body politic, and because never fully exorcised always poised to make a new showing.

A little recent history . . .

With the emergence of Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate to John McCain in the 2008 presidential election cycle, the stage was set for religion, and inside of it race, to be the staging ground of a struggle over the meaning of America as we moved further into the 21st century and against the backdrop of 9/11.

For if we recall, Palin was brought onto the McCain ticket not principally to secure the female vote (it was a foregone conclusion that even with Hillary Clinton no longer in contention for the democrat nomination, the female vote [to risk speaking reductively] was largely going democrat). The Palin served a different of objective, therefore. It was calculated to sure up an important vector of the republican base. This was the evangelical-Christian vote.

And so, as Obama was being portrayed as less than Christian (“he’s been influenced by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s black liberation theology preaching . . . ”; heck, Glenn Beck is still railing against black theology!) or even as not Christian at all (“God forbid: he’s really a Muslim . . .”), Sarah Palin was brought on board the republican ticket at that moment to, in part, do the work of representing “true Christianity.”

But what we must understand is that it was in this moment of a transition into the so-called “post-racial” that Obama’s blackness and his questionable Christianity were being fused together. Not surprisingly, it was also during this time, in the heat of the 2008 election, that the “birther movement” (the movement of folks insisting on seeing Obama’s birth certificate) arose. Still thriving today two-years after the 2008 election cycle, the birther movement has done the cultural work of attempting to cast doubt on Obama’s authenticity as an American citizen and so on his legitimacy as president.

And so to bring all of this together, we can say that the 2008 election cycle saw the merging of race, religion, and citizenship as the three-sided crisis of American culture and politics.

But we must recognize that this has been happening inside of a cultural melancholy and exhaustion, inside of a longing to be done with race, inside of a deep cultural yearning to be post-racial. But the illusion of the post-racial has, in fact, made the crisis confronting us all the more difficult to get at, to name, or talk about because with the rise of a black person to the highest political office of land, the fantasy arose that we’re done with race. “Let’s now turn to the real problem all along: class,” some say, failing to reckon with how class and race have been articulated to each other.

The result of this melancholy of race? Since Obama has been in office, on occasion after occasion, we have been forced, almost kicking and screaming—from the “beer summit” at the White House last summer to the Shirley Shirrod incident this past summer, to point to just two incidents—to reckon with how deeply within our cultural and social psyche (to say nothing of our individual personal psyches) the problem is.

These sentiments, the problems I’ve only scratched the surface of here, have not gone away since 2008. In fact, they’ve only been exacerbated. Indeed, the 2010 election cycle that we are now in the midst of is very much about the problem I’m talking about and the cultural anxieties tied to it. This, in significant part, is the meaning of the Tea Party movement. And the 2012 presidential election cycle, if I may play the role of a prophet, will be but the next round in the struggle of race, religion, and the crisis of American culture and politics.

But I don’t want to get ahead of things, talking about 2012 politics, which are 2 years down the road. Let’s stay with the present 2010 mid-term election cycle. For arguably, the latest evidence of exacerbation of the problem I’ve just summarized is contained in the recent revelation concerning Rick Iott, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives out of Northwest Ohio who is connected to the Tea Party movement.

(And this bring us back to where I started: the Hitler exhibit in Berlin, Germany.)

As everyone now knows, it was discovered that Iott has been having bonding time with his son, as he says—I’m not making this up; no joke!—through their participation in a World War II Nazi reenactment group. Iott, who is running against Democrat Marcy Kaptur for a Congressional seat in Ohio’s 9th District, spends a bit of his time posing, as it turns out, in a Nazi regalia. Or put differently, he likes play-acting in Hitler’s army as an SS soldier.

He’s has tried to defend himself by saying his participation in a Nazi reenactment group is only about his historical interest in the history of World War II, and that this in no way says anything positively or negatively about what kind of politician and congressman he would be.

But as my grandmomma used to say: “Now c’mon; ain’t nobody stupid.” Or in another aphorisms of hers: “I wasn’t bo’ne yesterday.”

Again, 3rd from the Left: Rick Iott

3rd from the Left: Rick Iott

In other words, a blind man can see through Iott’s response. The more challenging issue is the question of what this revelation about Iott reveals about our cultural moment (and not just about the wild slate of candidates running under the Republican banner as tea partiers).

Here’s my conjecture: With Iott we’re getting another manifestation of what I’ve called the lesser angels of our national culture today. He exhibits the rising xenophobia at work especially around issues of immigration and around the fear of building an ecumenical Muslim center near Ground-Zero in New York city, that fear that “we” are loosing “our” culture, that “our” civilization must be saved. The revelations concerning Iott, which are revelations concerning the Tea Party movement as well, make no mistake, are but the other side of the plans, eventually scuttled, by a Florida pastor a month ago to burn the Koran.

It’s high-time that these matters be thought through very carefully.

In conclusion, I want to say that if this is a fitting time for Germans to remember Hitler and to remember how it was at the level of everyday life and by everyday people that fascism found its support (thank God, there were some dissenters) , then we Americans must remember too. We must fear the potential “Nazi” in us, for there is a lot of talks these days, echoing the talk of the Nazis of old, of saving the nation, saving civilization, of saving “our” culture.

Indeed, if the revelations concerning Iott’s Nazi dress preferences mean anything, they mean this: the lesser angels of everyday fascism are always poised to rise within us to save civilization and in the name of security and the defense of society. In this way, everyday fascism acquires the aura of righteousness, even constitutional righteousness. The possibility is always there that everyday fascism will take hold in us and begin to dictate the terms of politics and culture. The fact that we so want to hold onto the myth of American exceptionalism may be testimony to how close we are to everyday fascism.

And Christians most especially must beware. For historically, Christians have been, not at the back, but the front of the line waving their tickets and demanding admittance into the stadium of everyday fascism, giving it divine sanction and invoking the will of God.

Herein lay the significance of the Hitler exhibit in Berlin for us on the other side of the Atlantic.

The exhibit is a challenge to resurgent nationalism in the U.S. (and its border-logic of in-and-out: just look at places like Nevada, Arizona, and Texas). It’s a challenge to resurgent civic religion in the U.S. as fused with “Christianity” as religious norm. And it’s a challenge finally to Christian existence in the present.

What does it mean to be Christian against the pressures and forces of our time, against belief that we can stabilize the order of things?

Of all people, those who claim to follow the Nazarene, who had no place to lay his head, whose stability was the instability of the cross, ought to know better.

Your thoughts?

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