The Nation, 2 February 2015

Art by Doug Chayka

Several interesting things in the 2 February edition of The Nation magazine.

Gary Younge predicts that the January 2015 massacres in Paris will strengthen France’s far right Front National.  I suspect that the opposite will in fact be the case.  The way I read opinion surveys like this one, France is like other Western European countries in that about a third of the electorate wants to alter immigration policy radically, either to stop immigration altogether or to eliminate all restrictions on it, while about two thirds of the electorate wants some or other kind of reform that will welcome a steady flow of law-abiding skilled immigrants, encourage immigrants to assimilate to the established norms of society, and keep as many criminals and other troublesome individuals outside the borders as possible.  These have long been the familiar goals of immigration policy everywhere, and I very much doubt that the mainstream parties will have any real difficulty finding ways to promote them once it becomes clear that the alternative is to start losing important elections to the Front National. Once the mainstream parties come up with something helpful to say about immigration, law and order, and similar issues, the Front’s level of support will recede, leaving its core of chronic sore-heads high and dry.

Stuart Klawans reviews a number of recent films, including The Interview.  I myself will never forgive actor Seth Rogen for the 2011 Green Hornet movie, but Mr Klawans praises Mr Rogen’s character in The Interview as the embodiment of what the world most likes about the USA:

The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

I’m sure the conscript soldiers of the allied forces in World War Two did their share of grousing and goldbricking, though if they hadn’t from time to time risen to “the stern, manly virtues” of which their officers and NCOs so fondly dreamed them capable the world would be a much drearier place today.

Anyway, Hitler is a bit miscast in his cameo appearance at the end.  For all that he preached the stern, manly virtues, Hitler himself rarely exemplified them.  Between his time lounging about the streets of Vienna under the rather ludicrous delusion that he was a budding artiste and his latter days sleeping into the afternoon and sitting up through the night watching movies in his private screening room while others fought in his name, virtually the only time Hitler practiced the demanding code he would so famously preach was when he was himself a conscript soldier in the trenches in the First World War.  And that service, though it earned him two Iron Crosses (one of them First Class,) had its match and more than its match in the service of many hundreds of thousands of other common soldiers in the armies of that planetary conflict.

Indeed, it may have been precisely Hitler’s ordinariness that made his political career such an extraordinary success.  A man somewhat below average height, tending to overweight, a face utterly forgettable except for a most unfortunate mustache, originating from the middlemost of the middle classes, a failure in every youthful pursuit, devoid of originality in any avenue of thought, Hitler had no notable characteristic that would distinguish him from anyone else.  As a cipher, he was the perfect choice to symbolize a whole generation.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in his book The Culture of Defeat (Picador, 2004, pages 235-239,) Germans in the period following the First World War had an urgent need for such a symbolic figure. The nations that sent their young men to the trenches were wracked with guilt at the slaughter.  Nothing about Hitler prevented Germans from identifying him with the war dead collectively and individually.  While most families, looking at a man with a truly impressive war record like Hermann Goering or Benito Mussolini or Oswald Mosley, or later on Leon Degrelle, might find it hard to believe that their own dead son or brother had acted so heroically, Hitler’s achievements as a regimental dispatch runner were a drama that would plausible with virtually any able-bodied soldier in the leading role. His lack of any dashing qualities made Hitler not only a blank screen, but a sacramental object.  Channeling their guilt through the figure of Hitler, the Germans developed a civic religion that made it possible for them to accept the horrific realities of the industrial age as they were revealed in the mass killing on the Western Front.

As it turned out, devotion to Hitler was not an altogether successful means of purging Germany of national guilt.  Since 1945, the usual theme of German efforts to work through the guilt that is Hitler’s legacy has been ostentatious renunciation of the stern, manly virtues.  Germans and other Europeans who sympathize with those efforts make up a sizable percentage of the people whose enmity Americans might earn by occasionally celebrating those virtues.  This civic religion has gone seventy years without starting a world war or committing genocide, so it must be ranked higher than its immediate predecessor, but “preferable to Naziism” is rather a low standard to meet.

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2 Comments

  1. Might note the odd timewarp of the post title: 2002?

    The idea of Hitler as a cipher was new to me.

    I have a coworker who thought The Interview was hilarious. After the frat boy tedium of The End (which my husband, oddly, found hilarious), I’m not ready to commit to The Interview.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the error in the title, Glenn, I’ve fixed it.

    Hitler as a cipher- I’ve always wondered about cult leaders and the the like, how unimpressive they tend to be as personalities. Remember David Koresh? I couldn’t believe people would look at that little twerp and see some divine figure to whom they would commit themselves so utterly. Schivelbusch’s theory that Hitler appealed to the Germans precisely because he was so unimpressive captured y attention precisely because it provided a category for him as well.

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