Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Softening the face of evil

I get really uncomfortable when a piece of history, represented by an imagery or a quote, gets appropriated and included in a work of art without the work attempting to understand the context of that piece. Like this new Hitler chic fad. Or, Che Guevera T-shirts being sold for 1500 in an American owned-brand store in a centre-city mall.

I believe greatly in the power of irreverent humour, of taking something sacred, and smashing it to pieces to exposes the hollow inside. As I read somewhere, we laugh loudest at things that most concern us. All institutions become stupider and stupider since their very nature is to self-preserve, and deny the dismantling of dialectical change. The older they are and the more obdurate they remain in their “faith”, the stupider they become, and the more the need to challenge them with irreverence. Humour, as a device, measures these institutions against the ever-changing conditions and values of our existence and leads to a constant cycle of creative destruction. However, before we lift the crowbar, it is our responsibility to first understand what exactly we are dismantling.
There have been many genocides through history. Many have been responsible for more deaths than Hitler. The great religions (the Inquisitions are estimated to have killed 60 million people), Genghis Khan, the prolonged massacre of the American Indians, and many others we will never know because no witness, no evidence was left. However, we can now view and appraise them from a cold distance because we live in a largely different world than the worlds these men lived in. Genghis Khan was not a war-criminal in his time, merely a rather vehement conqueror. The tortures and massacres in the name of religions were justified in those societies whose foundation stone remained the very religion, and not the principles of universal and fundamental rights that most modern societies are built on. The massacre of the Indians has sunk into a large collective unconsciousness. When America talks about the foundation “this country was built on”, they ignore the blood and bones crushed beneath those very stones. But even John Wayne now cannot get away with justifying that brutal beginning of American history (“I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”)
Hitler however still remains relevant to us because he engineered the biggest genocide of our own modern age. His legacy was not merely the murder of European Jew, gypsies, political dissidents, but a cold precise, even impersonal, system to achieve the same. Legacy of those concentration camps, as John Updike describes in Towards the End of Time as “those orderly death camps in the middle of the last century which ended forever Europe’s concept of itself as civilized and of the Western world as proceeding under a benign special Providence”.
Stalin is dead and so is, largely, that ugly face of communism. Unfortunately, Hitler, the ugly ideas of Nationalism Socialism he stood for, are still alive. Read Umberto Eco’s great essay that defines fascism, and you realize that the ideas which oppose minority rights, diversity, dissent, intellectuals and propound the violent imposition of a syncretistic faith, are still very much in our midst. And I am not talking about only the skinheads.  
If we choose to make a simulacrum of Hitler’s face, casting aside his hideously inhuman legacy of ideas - of a politics that methodically kills all dissent and difference, that glorifies a mythical past and molds every face and mind to that hideous ideal - what stops us then to extend this to using the swastika or a photographic print of the concentration-camp inmates as a Tshirt logo? Or a battered rape victim or a killed female fetus? Because they’re visually disturbing? Exactly. In the same manner, while Hitler’s face might not be, arguably, disturbing enough, the ideas he stood for and which still remain very relevant to us are many times more disturbing than the ones I mentioned. 

To paraphrase Eco: "We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again." And images, if I might add. Chaplin used his own likeness of Hitler to juxtapose the littleness of the man against the impact he was having on the lives of millions. And that’s why he would remain a bigger artist than Matisse who secluded himself from this greatly inconvenient war to paint his beautiful, voluptuous but lifeless paintings.

I am not a fascist. I believe in creative license and if somebody does decide to print a Nazi T-shirt all I can do is shake my head and still support their right to print that T-shirt. It’s only the cycle of ignorance it perpetuates that worries me, because in the bedrock of this doesn’t-concern-me ignorance is found these very evil ideas.


Tangled up in blue... said...

That Che t-shirt thing is downright weird, isn't it? I mean, I always look at one and go, "What would Che have thought of these?"

But ironies lost on consumerists aside, the Hitler thing is really weird because I think most people know exactly who he was or atleast that he did some really bad things. To transform him into a fashion accessory really takes some massive dumbing down by the forces of indifferent chicness. Hitler chic? Wow, those are two words I'd never have suspected as going together in one sentence.

But then, perhaps it was something inherently comical about Hitler - his jerky and dramatic oratorical style, his famously short moustache, it's all very Chaplinesque now thanks in part to the odd resemblance between the world's most loved and hated men.. Perhaps the image isn't all that threatening any more. It doesn't help that the face of evil managed to look so damn funny taken out of context.

The ideas he stood for, however, are much more difficult to swallow like you said. I really enjoyed reading all that you wrote because while the note of menace in all this is rather subdued, it isn't altogether absent.

There's a theory Freud had about us folks. That all of us have a death wish - a self-destructive force that drives us to violence and hatred and xenophobia, all of it disguised as a self-preservation mechanism. Maybe that's why our history is the way it is. Sometimes, that drive just takes over enough to figure in the events of history followed by a cycle of rebuilding and growth. Meanwhile, the aggression simmers elsewhere.

And everyone's too caught up in the sparkly sequinned red swastikas to notice really.

Tangled up in blue... said...

I really think I've rambled on quite a bit this time. But this was really quite a fascinating post to read. It was something I was totally unaware of on a conscious level and I'm grateful to have read about it here.