Thursday, June 12, 2008

no one more red white and blue

Given the scope and nature of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and those who aided and abetted that foul regime, it was only natural that the evocation of Nazism would become a commonly used rhetorical tactic (to the point of being given a semi-formal designation). It is brute force PSYOPS in its most elegant and simple form. The power of such analogies has diminished due to (frequently hyperbolic) overuse, leading to reflexive dismissal of those who play that particular trump card in an argument.

Context and proportion, as always, is key. Citing Nazi Germany as a historical precedent for a government using paranoia and scapegoating as a means of expanding executive power and curtailing civil rights is valid. Comparing a Wal-Mart worker to a Gestapo thug for asking to see one's receipt? Not so much.

The malfeasance of the Nazis is of such a singular magnitude in both scale and infamy -- Stalin's U.S.S.R. and the Cambodian Year Zero come nowhere close to it in terms of popular awareness -- its evocation makes issues of moral relativism a snap. Not only can petty personal grievances be linked to the actions of a genocidal totalitarian regime, but one's own dubious and reprehensible behavior can be whitewashed in comparison to the same:

We do detain people without regard for habeas corpus, but we don't send them to gas chambers! Waterboarding is a mild discomfort compared to medical experimentation!

In a sane world, this facsimile of logic where "falling short of ultimate evil" somehow equals "good" would be greeted with universal shock, horror, and/or rage, but in this world, it is seen as a valid argument by a large segment of the populace.

Because people are fucking stupid, and as Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #56 (July 1968; by Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, and John Severin) shows, it's a form of stupid that has been with us a while. "Gabriel, Blow Your Horn!" is not so much a story as it is a straw man formed from privileged white liberalism and patriotic platitudes and held together by Godwin's Law.

For those of you unfamiliar with Marvel's Howling Commandos, imagine the Rat Pack as a crack group of World War Two fighin' men, with Nick Fury as the Chairman of the Board, Dino Manelli as Dean Martin, Pinky Pinkerton as Peter Lawford, and "Dum Dum" Dugan as Shirley MacLaine. (The Joey Bishop role was held on a rotating basis by the other requisite polyglot archetypes that filled out the unit.)

The story begins with Gabriel "Gabe" Jones, the team's answer to Sammy Davis Jr. (only without the glass eye, Nehru jacket, and mustache) and nod toward the Great Society's sense of inclusiveness, making his escape from the German soldiers that captured him in the previous issue. He eventually hooks up with a contact in the French resistance movement, who asks for his assistance in rescuing Carla Swain, an American jazz singer held prisoner by the Nazis in occupied Paris.

Jones, a jazz trumpeter in civilian life (because diversity is fine and all, but breaking free from stock characterizations is hard), manages to land himself a gig at the club where Carla performs nightly to a packed house of German officers. (Interestingly enough, even though the officers are such hardcore Nazis that they find ways to drop lines from Mein Kampf into casual conversation, they don't seem to share the official party line regarding the "racial degeneracy" of jazz music. An insight into Nazi hypocrisy? Or the writer's ignorance of period history? You decide.)

After the performance, Jones punches and sneaks his way past the guards to gain access to Carla's room, only to find out that she has no desire to be rescued...

Despite her anachronistic Motown re-deco, it seems that Carla was intended to be an analogue to Josephine Baker, the expatriate jazz performer who relocated to France during the 1920's in part to escape the endemic racism she encountered in America. A massive sensation among both the French and the American ex-pats of the "Lost Generation," her pointed but spot-on comments about racial inequality and injustice in her native land got her labeled as a communist.

During the war, her popularity shielded her from Nazi persecution, and she assisted the French resistance as well as entertained Free French troops in North Africa, and she later participated in the American civil rights movement of the 1960's.

That was all a bit too nuanced for a shitty war comic, apparently, which instead recast the scenario as "Angry NegroTM duped by the Nazis and her own prejudices." Sure, there's lynchings and race riots and legalized discrimination in America...but we're still better than Nazis! (See how well that works? Try using it on your significant other some time: "Hon, I may have blown our life savings on magic beans, but at least I'm not a Nazi!")

"Howler Ramrod"? Oh, my.

Porn name jokes aside, let's see what we've got going on here:

1. Projecting blame and fault back onto the oppressed party
2. A white writer using a black character as a mouthpiece to add credibility to his argument
3. The disingenuous and untrue dismissal of America's racial issues as the work of a "handful of white people." In any case numbers mean less than the institutionalized and (officially and unofficially) sanctioned nature of racism in both 1942 and 1968.
4. The evocation of post-racial patriotic platitudes that fail to address the existing problem

Jones rushes in to save his REAL AMERICAN teammates from the goosesteppers. In the process, Carla manages to be taken hostage by Colonel Prussian Von Grimace, but is saved when "Reb" Ralston, the token ass-backward cracker member of the Howlers, kicks Von Grimace in the head. Carla thus comes around to the white right way of thinking...

Sometimes it takes a man who chooses to identify via nickname with a failed regime of slave-owners to teach us who the real bigots are.

If there one thing I've learned my life, it's that the only thing more aggravating than a white liberal who gets hyper-defensive over black rage (or even discontentment) is a white liberal who co-opts the same. I say "liberal" because conservatives don't fucking care. They just shrug it off and dream of new tax loopholes.

Now, Carla, just because you've chosen to think of yourself as a non-hyphenated American does not mean that the rest of your countrymen and women are obligated to do the same, but as long as you don't make waves there won't be a problem. And who knows? Maybe sometime in the early 21st Century, the country will nominate a black candidate for president after a long and rancorous nomination process where another supposedly "liberal" candidate will engage in race baiting! And maybe a slight majority of Americans will find both this and this to be reprehensible in the extreme!

If all else fails, though, just seek comfort in the knowledge that you're not living in the Third Reich.


Josephine Baker - Vous Faites Partie de Moi (I've Got You Under My Skin) (from Bonsoir My Love, 1998) - That sound you're hearing is the haunting echoes of modernity.

Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon - Love Me, I'm a Liberal (from Prairie Home Invasion, 1994) - Updating Phil Ochs for the Information Age. Necessary? Perhaps not, but I'm thrilled with the results.


Highlander said...

Superb bitterandrew - the link between the dodgy comic politics and the present day presidential campaign via the "we're taking away your civil liberties for your own good but at least we're not Nazis" conduit is v insightful.

SallyP said...

It is frightening to realize that Goebbels would have been perfectly at home in the Bush administration.