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Look Closer

Given all the focus on health care reform, you may have missed this scintillating tidbit: Clarence Thomas’ wife has formed a lobbying group to serve members of the “Tea Party” movement. As one news report oh so diplomatically put it, Justice Thomas “may have some impartiality and conflict of interest” problems ahead. Frankly, I’m not sure it changes anything: It just makes plain another of the links between reactionary members of the out-of-power party in government and the lunatic fringe that presage the rise of fascism (as I discussed last summer in “This Is It,” Looking Up, Aug. 20, 2009) and Hitler worship.

Now, I know, people like to throw the word “fascism” around a little too freely, usually whenever they’re told they can’t do something they want to do even though it’s dangerous or antisocial. And right-wingers sure do like to draw little Hitler mustaches on pictures of Obama for no logical reason. But that doesn’t mean that all comparisons to Hitler are inaccurate. It’s important not to let right-wing/libertarian/lazy abuse of the “Hitler card” get in the way of recognizing his ongoing influence in our arguably proto-fascist society. Nazism is not something we want to risk repeating because we were afraid to call a spade a spade.

Take for example, our dependence on cars. Most of us know that it’s unsustainable in the extreme, polluting the air, using up precious fuel reserves, and encouraging sprawl that eats up farms and forests while hollowing out cities. Bad news. But if you don’t understand the root causes of a problem, you’ll never fix it. The divided highway system comes to us from Hitler, who conceived of and began construction of the speed-limitless Autobahn before an interstate highway system was ever even floated in the United States. He intended it to “build up the community of the German people.” (He also designed the prototype of the Volkswagen Beetle on a café napkin, to be a “car of the people.”) Apparently we thought boxing people into their own vehicles and divorcing them from their surroundings did a good enough job of building community for 1930s Germany to want to repeat it here. And we wonder why there’s a breakdown in civil society. (Thanks to reader Bernie “Beatnik” Continelli for reminding me of this connection.)

If you doubt that we’re still living in a Nazi world every day, look no farther than downtown Albany and the Empire State Plaza: A vibrant neighborhood full of Jews and Italians swept away for a sterile, militaristic, Bauhaus-inspired governmental complex designed to impress visiting foreign dignitaries and house an increasingly dysfunctional state government where party loyalty (almost) matters more than violent assaults, and certainly more than functionally serving the people of the state (but when in doubt, blame things on “those people”—i.e., people from New York City, even though they contribute more to state revenues than they receive.” But in any case, there they are, fascist architecture dominating the heart of one of America’s oldest cities. Too bad they can’t be toppled like a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Even being a theoretically rabidly anti-fascist hippie doesn’t protect you from the subtle and lingering influence of Hitler’s thought. Take, for example, vegetarians. No other dietary choice presumes to have the right to inflict itself on everyone else. If you took an otherwise unrelated community event and appended a potluck or meal that was required to be exclusively gluten-free, kosher/halal, low-carb, in season/grown within 100 miles, or grown without the use of exploitative human labor, there would be outrage and refusal, or at best amused condescension for your obsessive devotion to a cause. But despite our region’s struggling family farms for whom livestock is an efficient and ecologically sound component of their livelihoods, vegetarianism is made the rule of the day left and right at public and private social and cultural events without even a flicker of introspection.

Does this sort of fascist behavior sound familiar? Remind you of one of the most famous vegetarians of all time? Of course it does. Though he didn’t choose to prioritize spreading his vegetarianism, that was a tactical matter. Hitler didn’t tolerate ethical debate. His worldview wasn’t subtle enough to incorporate golden means, moderation, or a humble look at humans’ place within a complex ecosystem. No. He looked for absolutes, final solutions, social rules based on emotion that you would first be ridiculed, then shamed, then carted away for flouting. Secretly, militant vegetarians envy his effectiveness and so adopt his approaches.

If we’re going to build a better world, first we have to get used to looking closer and not getting lulled into going with the Nazi flow.

What’s that? You think it isn’t useful to see Hitler everywhere you look? Look closer. Who’s feeling foolish now?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

April 1, 2010

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