Eroding the Fourth Column

This week’s readings, read at an angle, put neoliberalist capitalism at odds with democracy. They aren’t mutually incompatible – they can coexist for years, decades, maybe longer – but slowly, slowly, neoliberalism, should it be allowed to erode the fourth column of independent and fact-driven journalism, primes the population against democracy.

Des Freedman first describes how the neoliberal impulse to extricate the government from the economy leads to informational media communities being treated as any other sector of the economy. The media is not but another sector of the economy, given its role in creating a shared narrative – particularly in a political system where citizens depend on the accuracy of that narrative to then direct their governments.

Ignoring this special political role means the media sector is left to consolidate, with all the power behind those broadcasters pooled in the hands of the unelected directors of those corporations. Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes are boogeymen of the political left on this issue; while the Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos and CNN are frequent targets of the political right.

That power comes from the ability to effectively elevate or deplatform politicians, should a massive media conglomerate be directed to do so – perhaps even by the politicians themselves, perhaps, engaging in explicit backroom deals like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have all been accused of doing.

But it also comes from the ability to shape the narrative in ways that can be barely perceptible, as Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis describe. If the media, a key part of the social fabric binding together the nation, insinuates that a certain (usual ethnic, but with potential focus on religious, class, or urban/rural divisions as well) group is the ‘norm’ and that every other demographic is deviant, and presents those groups only in association with indicators of ‘societal decay’, then it contributes to creating a damaging social narrative. Consolidation also suffocates potential dissenting voices, making it harder for the groups Othered by these exclusionary narratives to push back against their depictions or the inappropriate contextualization generated in the name of quick deadlines or engaging narratives running roughshod over the quest for accuracy.

This then leaves the door open to populists ‘say the quiet part loud’, and either serve as firebrands defending these groups shut out from the mainstream media – or as a representative of a ‘silent majority’ angry that these Others are leeching from the social chest.

Neither is good for democracy. And while Freedman concedes that the populists will eventually be integrated into mainstream politics, will eventually lose the novelty and shock appeal that garnered them so much free media attention, this will not happen before they damage the democratic fabric of the society. They might actually sabotage democratic institutions – taking steps from populism towards authoritarianism proper – or they might just inscribe new patterns of hurt into the palimpsestic vocabulary of politics.

Regardless, allowing unbridled neoliberal impulses to recast media companies as just corporations amongst others undermines the fourth column of fact-finding journalism, leaving democracy like a chair with one shortened leg.

The strategic trading of foes

The Holocaust has become, effectively, shorthand for evil – which has given antisemitism, at least in the Western political context, an inimitable stench in politics. It has created something of a third rail in politics, a rule of thumb: to be antisemitic, is to be profoundly racist.

But, more troublingly, the inverse logic is also applied sometimes: to be racist is to be antisemitic; and to not be antisemitic is to not be racist.

As Ivan Kalmar describes, this has allowed for something of a compromise in the far-right: make a show of supporting at least a few Jewish figures, and use that as a shield against accusations of racism/Islamophobia when they target Muslims. Supporting Israel here allows those far-right parties to show support for a Jewish polity, and be recognized for it by Israeli leadership under Benjamin Netanyahu; and also use their ‘support for Israel’s right to exist’ to justify harsher policies against Muslims cast as existential enemies of Israel.

This whitewashing dynamic ties into the European Union’s own raison d’être: preventing a new Holocaust and such crimes against humanity has becoming the public justification for the Union’s existence, easier to sell to the public than a mere engine for economic integration. To do that, though, the Holocaust has been positioned as the darkest stain on the history of Europe – worse than the Great War, than Napoleonic Wars, than the Thirty Years’ War. Nothing less would properly explain why a European Union was coming into being only now, rather than after the destruction of those years.

By making the Holocaust such an exceptional event, though, the European Union allows for that exculpatory dynamic I describe in the first paragraph – and by making Holocaustic recognition a rite of passage for candidate countries, it installs in them early on the logical bases to make that intolerant trade-off.

Ironically, though, there is another dynamic at play in those countries, which might actually weaken the logic of the Holocaust as a uniquely evil event. Namely, these countries have long pushed for recognition of the Soviet occupation as an equivalent, if not a worse, trauma. The occupation lasted longer, they say; invaded the lives of its denizens more deeply, probed them more invasively; and killed more overall.

Of course, there are problems with this narrative, not least of which is the attempt to refocus attention not on the Jewish victim, the ‘Other’, but rather on those victims from the ethnic cores of the Soviet Republics and satellites. In that sense, amending the narrative to equate Holocaustic and Soviet crimes – as the European Union has done, to some degree, by explicitly recognizing both on August 23, the ‘Black Ribbon Day’ also known as ‘the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’ – may not help the ethnic nationalism driving the far-right to exclude Muslims. In fact, it might make things worse, by weakening the logic that leads these groups to tolerate Jewish communities (at least openly – their actions may speak differently).

But, at least, it might also strip away the thin veil hiding the intolerance of these groups, and might force them back out of the mainstream in those countries where they have managed to crawl onto the main stage.

Behind Europe, Christiandom

To open this reflection piece, I’ll break the class rule of not citing outside sources. This one struck me enough that I think it’s worth it.

Trivellato, F. (2010, March). Renaissance Italy and the Muslim Mediterranean in Recent Historical Work. The Journal of Modern History, 82(1), 127-155.

Amongst other points, the author tries to reinterpret the Renaissance, not so much as an architectural or intellectual evolution, but as a revolution in European-Ottoman relations. The Byzantine nobles forced out of their ancestral lands by the Ottoman takeover of Anatolia and the Balkans fled to Europe, many of them to Italy – and attempted to rally the local rulers to their cause, hoping that if the Ottomans could be routed, these Byzantine nobles would be able to reclaim their lands and the associated wealth.

Such an endeavor would require massive allies – the entirety of Christian Europe, perhaps. And so the Ottomans had to be seen as an existential threat – more than a simple imperial rival. To create this perception, the Byzantine refugees started a long campaign of redefining this as a religious conflict, conflating Christianity and Europe, and thus arguing that the Muslim Ottomans could never legitimately hold European land. Instead, that land belonged to Christians – more specifically, it belonged to them.

I believe we can see the repercussions of this redefinition in the attitudes described by Göle and the other readings of this week. There remains, in the popular view, a deep conflict between what is European and what is Muslim, he says. Yet, clearly, there is intellectual dishonesty at work here – at first blush, ‘European’ is a geographical descriptor (not that the borders of Europe are uncontested, but it remains a geographical concept), while ‘Muslim’ is a religious, if not cultural, label.

And yet, there is a conflict. And so it must be that ‘European’ does not refer to a purely neutral, objective concept. Instead, it is a linguistic legerdemain, itself also referring to ‘a religious, if not cultural, label’.

That underlying definition can be seen, perhaps, in the insistence of European populists – such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, as reported on by the Guardian’s Julian Coman – on helping Christians in the Middle Eastern, while rejecting Muslim refugees currently in Europe. The bond is built not along geographical lines, as would be suggested by the ‘European vs. Muslim’ framing; instead, it is built along religious lines, with European Christians (with Orban constantly emphasizing his faith) reaching out to Middle Eastern Christians. It’s why there remains an unresolved tension in the identities of Muslims living in Europe, as described by Fatima El-Tayeb.

This doesn’t explain why, however, the dominant rhetoric emphasizes ‘Europe’ rather than ‘Christianity’. And Göle has the answer here as well: it is a question of portraying oneself as modern and rational, while the other is tribal and superstitious. This “moral grammar of war”, he says, is why these European populists speak not of ‘headscarves’, a neutral garment, but of ‘burkas’, to emphasize the Islamic and foreign nature of the garb.

After all of this comes Renaud Camus, who speaks of a ‘Great Replacement’, of Muslim immigrants eroding the identity of Europe. If Europe were but a geographical border, this would mean nothing; instead, he – and the far-right circles recycling his concept – are tapping into centuries of propaganda. They cannot be dismissed as some new outgrowth, born merely of populist backlash to the Syrian migrant wave; instead, one must look at their historical roots. As Camus says: “Distance is very, very necessary for observation,” and for understanding.

Armenian Democracy on the Brink

Armenian democrats have long been left disappointed, and 2021 promises no better.

In the last months of 2020, Armenia mobilized its armed forces as territorial tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan escalated to bloodshed, killing thousands between September and November. The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has long dominated politics in both countries, even during Soviet times; but it has become much more salient as both Armenia and Azerbaijan secured their independence from the USSR and immediately went to war over this region, internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan but inhabited and controlled by ethnic Armenians agitating for independence. The ultimate fate of Nagorno-Karabakh is a key part of both countries’ political narratives, making it very difficult for either government to back down from a conflict without crippling its domestic legitimacy – hence the several wars and skirmishes since 1989.

Those passions overwhelmed coronavirus precautions, leading Armenia to mobilize its male population – prompting travel and close-quarters training that one might link to the massive ‘second wave’ the country faced in the following weeks. Despite these military efforts, Armenia was forced into a ceasefire described by its Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as “incredibly painful both for me and both for our people”, with many territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh ceded back to Azeri control. Protests immediately erupted in Armenia, backed by many opposition politicians, calling for the resignation of the government over this ‘national humiliation’.

PASHINYAN CLASHES WITH THE ARMY

Looking to secure his own political survival even after this crippling blow, Pashinyan tried to sack the army’s chief of staff – though this decree was bucked by President Sarkisian, a usually ceremonial figure in Armenian politics – and claimed Russia had given Armenia’s armed forces defective Iskander missiles.

This attempt to shift the blame onto the Armenian military was met with a strongly-worded letter by the general staff of the armed forces, insisting that “the Armenian armed forces patiently endured discrediting attacks by the current government, but everything has its limits”: the civilian government was to step down. Since then, though protests continue – including storming government buildings – there has not yet been an overhaul of government leadership, though Pashinyan just days ago floated the idea of – with conditions – holding a snap election.

This may, despite the precedent sent, be the best of bad options.

DARK PATHS FORWARD

Either the military succeeds and Pashinyan is forced out of power, or he remains – presumably by pivoting to a more militaristic direction. A resurgence in military nationalism has correlated poorly for democracy in the Former Soviet Union, and particularly in Armenia – a country scarred by memories of the Armenian genocide, and constantly fearing a new ‘white genocide’ – this will likely leave the country vulnerable to anti-democratic influences from friendly Iran and military ally Russia, both of whom use the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to cement their grip on Armenia’s politics.

Pashinyan is currently supported by Turkey, with Ankara apparently deciding that bolstering its anti-coup position was more important than retaliating for Pashinyan’s wartime comments that Turkey was committing a new Armenian genocide by helping Azerbaijan in the conflict. The risk is that Pashinyan – or whoever replaces him, if he himself is forced to step down but his party is allowed to remain in power – takes a book out of Ankara’s book, and weaponizes the military’s withdrawn pseudo-coup ultimatum to justify a wide-ranging crackdown on the political opposition that backed the threat. In Turkey, after a July 2016 coup attempt, tens of thousands have been arrested or purged from the civil service – including some just a few months ago. For further inspiration, Pashinyan could also look to neighboring Georgia, which last week arrested a prominent opposition politician, accusing him of spearheading crowds of protesters that took over government buildings in 2019.

The region’s democracies are faltering, and Armenia has little to keep it from following suit.

Armenia had, if you squinted at it and on a good day, a fragile democracy. None of this bodes well for it.

Track Two Politics

Nowadays, diplomacy is usually done between states, with all the trappings of sovereignty on grand display. Sometimes, though, those states – big as they are – find themselves incapable of threading the needle of negotiation. Perhaps they’re too large, not seen as a valid representative for one of the aggrieved parties; perhaps they are, on the other hand, seen as being too much of a representative for one of the parties, and thus incapable of being adequately objective in the reconciliation problem.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes the state is no longer the proper actor to resolve a dispute. And in those cases, states can take a step back, leaving a void to be filled by civilian actors: academics, community leaders, religious figures, or other popular leaders. That’s Track Two diplomacy – actors that don’t have the same responsibilities as the national government can hold discussions in a less regulated environment, advancing points and floating ideas that might be politically unpalatable for a government, but that must be said in order to properly resolve the issue. A bridge is built on a more individual level, and only then opened to the public.

Helmut Smith makes, in a way, this point when he discusses the post-Holocaustic reconciliation, and the massive role played by Jewish returnees in creating the room for these discussions to even happen. “It takes a village to create a nation’s memory,” he titles his Zocalo essay; without the low-level reconciliations between Jews returning to their ancestral villages and those villages’ attempts to make amends, it is difficult to imagine the Holocaust miniseries – which a number of historians of Germany indeed cite as a turning point – getting the oxygen needed for the beginnings of reconciliation.

The role of civilian experiences in national politics is echoed in Werner Sollors’ examination of ‘the Fragebogen’, a deeply invasive standardized questionnaire used by the Allied occupiers to identify and deplatform as many Nazi-aligned Germans as possible. Because the questionnaire was ubiquitous, a necessary step in securing any kind of employment or public office, it became a cultural touchstone in postwar Germany: effectively everybody was subjected to this systematized probe at one point or another, and so it formed the basis for a kind of cultural pushback against American occupation – especially given a sense of injustice, that they were being forced through this humiliation while ‘the real Nazis’ escaped punishment.

In both cases, there is a cultural shift built against the state directive; and the changes sparked by these societal ruminations ended up having great repercussions at higher levels. National politics builds off the local.

The Traditionalist View of Apolitical Feminity

Back in 2017, a coworker of mine said she was relieved Marine Le Pen had lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron – because ‘she wasn’t pretty enough’.

The sentiment threw me at first, and our break ended before I had the chance to press her much on what she meant, but the sentence stuck in my mind – and this class has been quite useful in understanding how exactly to situate it in history. It’s a sentiment which arguably tracks with the conservative/traditionalist gender roles discussed in this class, an idea that demands men act ‘as befits men’ and that women act ‘as befits women’, and allows transgression in one realm only if one’s ‘masculinity’/‘femininity’ is indisputably or exaggeratedly demonstrated elsewhere. Exceptions to the gender roles are bought through adherence to them.

This could mean the Nazi model described by Thomas Kühne, under which men were allowed ‘feminine habits’ like pushing their child’s stroller or demonstrating emotion only if they had proved their ‘masculine strength’ through their use of violence. Or it could mean, as I now understand my coworker’s framing, that Le Pen was not seen as having a sufficiently ‘feminine’ appearance to make up for the ‘masculine-ness’ of her political ambitions.

This framing of government as an inherently masculine activity, barred to women unless they meet whatever arbitrary and demanding metric of femininity elsewhere in their lives, has been dissected and lampooned elsewhere with much greater understanding, knowledge, and precision than I can put forth here (or, to be frank, anywhere). It’s a way to silence a demographic, to perpetuate the hold on power of certain groups, so on and so forth; it’s a tactic repeated far beyond the male/female faultline.

That rhetorical ploy to secure male hegemony over governance politics, though, has had interesting repercussions on the discourse regarding other forms of politics.

For one, the ideological tenet that of apolitical femininity left its believers incapable of adequately responding to the very political actions that some women undertook against them. Sofia Rodriguez Lopez and Antonio Cazorla Sanchez demonstrate this well in Blue Angels, where both the Republican and the Nationalist structures dismissed women as incapable of having political agency, despite the fact that said women were quite effective in supporting their sides.

In those cases where the women were punished for their dissidence, they were often framed as being the wives, sisters, or daughters of dissidents – justifying the participation of ‘apolitical women’ in these ‘political crimes’ by emphasizing their connection to men, and thus distancing them from that feminine apolitical ideal. This can also, in a sense, be seen in Hochst Höchst’s quote that she merited her position in modern Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland because “I could kill every man in the party” – in her interview with the Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis, Höchst emphasizes her prowess in martial arts, reframing it as a ‘masculine trait’ that overrides her woman-ness sufficiently to legitimize her presence in traditionalist politics.

Another example comes in Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies, and ties into some contemporary discussions. Culture is unarguably a form of politics, with heavy influence on who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, and the construction of societal discriminations based off those hierarchies. However, the power of culture in a political sense is that it comes off as completely natural – of course things are like this, of course we do things this way, of course power is distributed in this way, because that’s our culture! Given the important role of women in household and formal cultural education, though, as described by Lower, there is a tension between the obviously political (if subconscious) aims of this indoctrination and the allegedly-apolitical nature of women put forth by that ideology. And for a long time, regimes built on the idea of feminine apoliticism insisted that no activity so dominated by women could be political. Nowadays, though, that blinder is being pulled back, and culture is being exposed to political dissection and contestation on a greater scale than previously possible – no longer shielded by some traditionalist myth that women are innately apolitical.

If you can’t beat them, join them – coronavirus edition

Much has been written about the American failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, with a death toll over 465 000 and rising. Much has also been written about Trump’s own role in that failure, refusing to publicly acknowledge the threat and rally support for preventative measures.

The problem wasn’t Trump as a person.

The problem was Trump as a populist. The problem was Trump, the problem was Bolsonaro: populists the world over opted for ‘trial by fire’, hoping to brave the storm with minimal protective measures and minimal economic damage.

There are two key factors that make a populist vulnerable to a pandemic: pride and malice.

The first comes from the simple reality that preventative measures, as we’ve heard ad nauseam over the past year, can generally only ‘flatten the curve’. That isn’t to say that eliminating community spread through mask-wearing and social distancing is impossible – with New Zealand an often-cited point there – but that, given the measures politically palatable in a democratic ‘loose society’, it is unlikely.

And that means that the leader must spend months encouraging the population to stay strong just a little longer, and must spend tremendous political capital – the leader must beg with no guarantee of success. That is unacceptable for a populist leader having built his entire reputation around personifying the strength and ‘alpha’-ness of ‘his people’.

Instead, by bluffing that his current efforts are sufficient, the populist leader can simply remove himself from the game: rather than failing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he simply isn’t trying. It may be childish and petty, but in the narrative spun by those leaders, it works.

More than that, it allows those leaders to mock political opponents who do implement restrictions, yet fail to completely stop the spread. Those political opponents are lampooned for offering bad from both worlds – continued contagion paired with life-altering restrictions – while the populist leader fights for ‘freedom’. The leader might even actively undermine the restrictions, for example by hosting crowded political rallies, in order to flaunt his resilience. (The impact on infection rates has not yet been fully determined, but it seems a fair assumption to make that these rallies served as ‘superspreader events’, making Trump’s opponents seem even more ineffective in their attempts to ‘slow the spread’.)

The populist looks strong, his opponents look weak; pride is preserved.

The other element is malice. And that malice becomes obvious when we look at who is most affected by the pandemic: urbanites, given the greater population density and thus greater potential for contagion, who typically voted against the populists; and ‘Others’, typically a racialized group, who are systematically disadvantaged when it comes to securing aid or treatment, and who are excluded from the populist’s ‘Nation’.

In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, one such group of ‘Others’ are the indigenous peoples in Amazonian territory. Bolsonaro, as part of an “institutional strategy”, sabotaged attempts by these peoples to prevent the spread of the disease within these communities, which consistently opposed his plans for rainforest development.

In other cases, such as in the United States, the three categories intersect. Black and Latino Americans have found themselves assailed from all sides, living largely in Democratic-led cities and excluded from ‘white collar quarantines’ due to the manual jobs held by many, and have suffered death rates nearly three times higher than those of non-Hispanic Whites.

On the flip side, the rural populations that forms the backbone of these right-wing populists’ electoral constituencies are much better insulated, if only due to lower population density and their ‘in-groupness’ offering them better access to care and treatment. That protection doesn’t last forever, but it shields ‘the base’ from the mediatized consequences of the pandemic.

The ‘Nation’ led by the populist is protected; the ‘Others’, described as preventing society from returning to its glory days, are suffering. Malice gloats.

Pride, and malice. Pride and prejudice, one might say, if this were a lighter topic. It isn’t a pretty picture. As much criticism as our leaders may deserve for their handling of the pandemic, at the very least we should be grateful they aren’t worse.

Where leads this road paved with good intentions

Given my previous posts have centered on picking out some example of discrimination on the basis of sex, this week’s readings seem a natural fit.

I’m instead going to take a different tack, addressing right-wing accusations that societal reckonings over gendered and neocolonial dynamics are the basis for a new fascism, a new Marxism, something between or something worse than both. Paternotte and Kuhar’s article addresses these most clearly, as they detail the religious-conservative alliance pushing back against same-sex marriage, cast as a Trojan horse for an Orwellian and anti-Catholic redesigning of society, and (co-opting arguments from the left) a new imperialism looking to forcibly restructure non-Western social networks.

Actually addressing this gets a little delicate, even under a pseudonym. Yes, the current conversations happening in society – in terms of identifying and hopefully, eventually, somehow counteracting and redressing the countless ways in which centuries of hierarchy have infused nigh-on every part of daily life with some insidious flavor of sexism, racism, classism, etc. – do, taken to their logical conclusions, require a social revolution. And yes, given the problematic role of religious institutions in maintaining many of these divisions, they would necessarily be put under close scrutiny.

It’s on the basis of such statements that Paternotte and Kuhar’s conservative groups accuse social liberals of serving as ‘useful idiots’, paving the road for a totalitarian regime.

One such totalitarian movement, the 1930s-1940s Romanian Legionary Movement described by Sandelescu, did indeed see its quest as the construction of a New (Fascist) Man. This New Man (and Woman, notwithstanding the focus on men) was to be created “in the Nest, the work-camp, in the organization and the legionary family itself” – an environment the Movement emphasized would re-educate its members and purge them of the perfidious influence of those looking to divide the nation (referring here to Jews).

On a basic level, dabbling in horseshoe theory (that the far left and the far right eventually come to resemble each other), one can see similarities. Society is depicted as corrupted, and as requiring redemption through a re-education dictated by those enlightened/woke. While this isn’t enforced at gunpoint nowadays, the religious-conservative alliance will point to ‘cancel culture’, arguing that ousting non-compliant individuals from their livelihoods is a clear threat of violence, simply economic rather than physical, an ultimatum to silence oneself or be silenced.

However, that distinction – economic versus physical – is a significant one, and not one that can be handwaved away. It’s a distinction that keeps the Sleeping Giants, Time’s Up, and others within the realm of legitimate, democratic, majoritarian politics. It’s a distinction that allows for even far-right communities to create their own economic ecosystems and legal drolleries, as described by Cynthia Miller-Idriss, to continue their activities. It’s a profoundly important distinction, by which ideas are to be defeated through the soap box and the ballot box, rather than at the hand of magistrates, judges, and guns.

As well, this ‘social revolution’ is – by its very nature, arguing that injustice towards one is injustice towards all – decentralized, looking to unearth injustice towards every one. Though there may be prominent figures, there is no centralized mouthpiece; there is no populist firebrand who, as per Finchelstein, could shake off the post-Hitlerian taboo on populist violence. And could there even be such a leader in such a movement, capable of corrupting its fundamental principle that all of society is wounded by the maintenance of artificial hierarchies?

That is not to say that there have not been excesses – there have been, and academics have underlined and spoken out against those. But the movement as a whole has remained well within the bounds of legitimate political activism, and to criticize it on the basis that its fringes may create a slippery slope to potential authoritarianism – or that a dictator may drape itself in the language of the movement – is of questionable intellectual honesty.

Eroding the Wall Between the Political and the Private

Photography has, perhaps, unique implications for that fragile boundary between the private and the public, the personal and the political. Everything that painting could do, the development of casual photography made accessible to everybody. As Umbach elaborates, any interwar German could capture a moment in time, creating a precious memory to be shared and handed down.

This ability to easily create snapshots is of particular interest to a totalitarian regime. Now, those grandiose displays of strength so favored by such regimes – massive military parades, the reconstruction of the Colosseum, or directed tourist routes revealing the poverty of other countries, as per Baranowski – can be preserved, and the picture-takers are deputized into message-bearers for the regime, as they redistribute the regime’s chosen message in their own photos, more authentic and personal spokespeople than centralized party newspapers.

In the same way as the symbolic nature of those events can be redistributed forever, so to can those individuals in the photos, captured as they are, in alignment or in opposition to the regime’s raison d’être. In a populist context, where the movement’s legitimacy rests on its protracted struggle to return the nation to the glorious days of ere, this becomes of particular importance – and so the appearance of those who are captured in those photographs is also of particular importance to the State.

To return on my comments last week about the centrality of controlling female sexuality to the fascist narrative – where racism could be tempered to build wartime alliances, but under no circumstances could ‘the Women of the Chosen Race’ be allowed to stray – this same concern, and the same obsession with control, are also illustrated here. Nazi guards were quick to caution German women who got too cozy with locals at their tourist locales, with Baranowski describing how little it took to incur sanction: “Ignoring warnings that their deportment flouted that demanded of a ‘master race,’ the women cheerfully posed for snapshots with blacks against scenic backdrops, in return for a few cigarettes.” With photography allowing for the creation of a permanent memento of this ‘race mixing’, even if the actual event lasted only a second, it necessitated a state response.

The hypocrisy appears when those women are chastised for interacting with locals, while those very same locals are incentivized by the State to develop tourist-attracting amenities by the promise of, as per Crumbaugh’s dissection of the Franco-era movie El turismo es un gran invento (Tourism is a grand invention), “Booby girls” coming to visit these new tourist destinations. The woman in this scenario do not control their bodies, instead being dictated a list of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ partners, and being promised to those who serve the nation faithfully.

Sexual politics aside, the snapshot ability of photography allows for a jealous/totalitarian-minded populist movement to constantly probe its followers for any disloyalty. To counteract this, it becomes important for movement adherents to constantly signal their allegiance. This can be done consciously, such as through the adoption of specific Hitleresque poses as described by Umbach in Nazi Germany, but this might fall short – particularly nowadays, with the ubiquity of photography and the potential for surreptitious capture. To be safe, one needs a physical shibboleth, something that constantly indicates one’s support for the movement, even in photographs taken without one’s knowledge.

Miller-Idriss gives a fascinating overview of these symbols, with the rapid rise in the past two decades of articles of clothing clearly linked to populist-nationalist groups. As she explains, these clothes serve to indicate ideological affinity, effectively serving as a key to prove one’s group-membership, and thus unlocking access to certain communities or events. They also, though, serve to create a shared economic interest, with those articles of clothing manufactured by companies specifically hiring and thus funneling money to like-minded individuals.

Now, the popularity of these clothes may be linked more to the growth of population density – serving to identify allies in cities where it is no longer feasible to know everyone personally – rather than to the fear of being ostracized from a community after being photographed without the proper apparel. Pragmatically, that may be the case. Philosophically, though, it may well be worth seeing this as part of a slippery slope, where the political drills ever more peepholes into that wall separating it from the personal, gaining ever more technological tools to record and scrutinize every moment for a hint of dissent.

When the political begins demanding constant allegiance to a narrative, that becomes particularly worrisome. The mixture of populism and social media (between public-facing social media or leaked private chats) seems primed to be a toxic brew – but adequately addressing that particular debate would far overspill the (already well exceeded) word limit of this piece.


Baranowski, S. (2004). Racial Community and Individual Desires: Tourism, the Standard of Living, and Popular Consent. In S. Baranowski, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (pp. 162-198). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crumbaugh, J. (2009). Prosperity and Freedom under Franco: The Grand Invention of Tourism. In J. Crumbaugh, Destination Dictatorship: The Spectacle of Spain’s Tourist Boom and the Reinvention of Difference (pp. 15-39). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Miller-Idriss, C. (2018, May 9). Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss – The Extreme Gone Mainstream; Presentation on ‘The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany’. International Institute of Islamic Thought. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHYcakSDUCE&ab_channel=IIITMedia

Umbach, M. (2015, September). Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945. Central European History, 48(3), 335-365.

Discrimination in Wartime Fascism

Étienne Plourde

Wartime fascism, it turns out, had very few absolute tenets.

Even the idea of racial supremacy – perhaps the first, infamous, element that will come to the mind of most asked about fascism – was warped to fit the needs of the regime. From one side of the mouth, the fascist State spouted racist tropes to manipulate its population towards the New Men and the New Women it desired; from the other, it sought to arouse collective consciousness amongst, and bolster the position of, those very groups it denigrated.

 That isn’t to say, of course, that the entirety of fascist bigotry was a psychological game; to put it quite coldly, the sheer scale of the Holocaust – and the documented ways in which it detracted from Germany’s war effort – make it clear that fascist rhetoric on race was more than just a populist flourish.

At the same time as the systematic extermination of Jews was taking place, though, Nazi Berlin was backing ethnic separatists seeking to free their homelands in the Global South from European imperialists. As elaborated upon by Motadel, Germany offered a sort of asylum to political dissidents from British India, French Africa, and Russian Central Asia, and amplified their voices as it saw fit – not unlike the way in which the Second Reich had steered Communist dissidents to tsarist Russia to destabilize its foe during the First World War.

As Motadel continues in an unrelated New York Times column, there is room for ‘international nationalism’: “global cooperation among supposedly homogeneous, organically grown, closed national communities – call it ‘reactionary cosmopolitanism’.” The driving force behind these ‘supposedly homogeneous’ communities, and the tenet on which fascism could not compromise, was sexism.

Ben-Ghiat illustrates this most clearly by describing the punishment for miscegenation – sexual relations between races – in the Ethiopian colony of fascist Italy. From 1937 onwards, an Italian man found guilty of sexual relations with an African woman would be sentenced to five years in prison. An Italian woman in the same situation would be publicly whipped and sent to a concentration camp.

Despite this humiliation of the individual, state media endeavored to emphasize the virtue of the Italian Man and Woman as a whole, by actively painting the other partner – African men and women, whether or not they participated in miscegenation – as aggressively hypersexual creatures and thus blaming them for this ‘transgression’. Ben-Ghiat cites the case of one contemporary Italian movie, where an African warchief is shown kidnapping a European woman to force her into marriage. In the English dubbing, the accusation is mistranslated, instead making an even more blunt accusation that he is kidnapping her to rape her.  

This ‘crime’ of ‘stealing’ a woman ‘from’ ‘her race’ (with, yes, scare quotes around every word in that phrase) is a recurring theme in fascist media, presented as an aggression against the purity of the race and the chastity of the woman, and depriving a New fascist Man of the wife and virility he was promised in exchange for his allegiance to this new State.

Racism is an instrument of fascism, but it is only an instrument. It can be retooled and redefined to fit the geopolitical needs of the State at the time.

Sexism, on the other hand, is an immutable part of the social contract of fascism. The woman is a tool of the state, used to grow the population and traded to buy the allegiance of men; anything that threatens that grand bargain is an existential threat, and the fascist State must – as it did – exert considerable effort to reinstall its authority.


Motadel, D. (2019, July 3). The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism – But They Depend on It. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/the-surprising-history-of-nationalist-internationalism.html

Motadel, D. (2019). The Global Authoritarian Moment and the Revolt against Empire. American Historical Review, 124(3), 843-877.

Ben-Ghiat, R. (2015, April 9). Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema. New York University. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFFLXVvtXc&ab_channel=CasaItalianaNYU

Ben-Ghiat, R. (2001). Conquest and Collaboration. In R. Ben-Ghiat, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (pp. 123-170). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.