Friday, June 08, 2007

Icons and Irony

Intellectually, I’m with David Boaz and Radley Balko: it’s outrageous that communism is not treated with the same revulsion as Nazism when people wear its symbols on their skin and clothing. But emotionally, I’m in tune with Jim Henley and Julian Sanchez: somehow the commie stuff doesn’t bother me as much.

Julian seems to think that intentions make the difference: communism just turned out to be bad, whereas Nazism had evil goals from the get-go. This rationalization doesn’t quite work for me. Maybe it would have worked as an excuse in 1945. But in 2007, anyone who doesn’t understand that communism is murderous and brutal is either willfully blind or woefully ignorant. Besides, even Nazism can also be understood as an outgrowth of ignorance: the belief that economics is a zero-sum game, so that if the Jews are getting wealthy it must be at “our” expense.

If I had to justify my differing emotional reaction to commie iconology, I would appeal to the possibility of irony. When someone wears a hammer & sickle on a hoodie they bought at Urban Outfitters, I can at least imagine the wearer recognizes how ironic that is. But when I see someone sporting a swastika, it’s hard for me to believe it’s just a goof (“No, I wear this as a commentary on the idiocy of racism” – yeah, right). And my emotional reactions do seem to track the irony; when I suspect someone wearing a Ché T-shirt actually might support Ché-like behavior, I experience a revulsion very similar to that which I’d have for a swastika.

Of course, Nazism is not just about racism – it’s also about government control of the economy (remember, Nazism = National Socialism) – but that’s not its primary mental association; racism (or anti-Semitism) is. Communism, however, is primarily about the economic system, and thus Soviet icons on consumer merchandise create immediate dissonance in a way that Nazi icons cannot.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

One's differing views toward different things aren't always a result of important intrinsic differences between them. They may be a result of historical accident, or they may be a result of superficial differences.

Historical accident: if you happen to have grown up with Bob but not with Bill, then Bob is more likely to be a good friend of yours and be well liked by you.

Superficial difference: Suppose that Bob likes baseball and other popular sports and Bill likes curling but no popular sports. A typical American is more likely to become friends with Bob on account of a shared interest, even if Bob's interest in sports is only a superficial aspect of his character.

Historical accident: The Nazis were (a) our enemies and (b) thoroughly defeated in WWII and no longer around after WWII to continue to make their case. The communists were (a) our allies and (b) among the victors of WWII and still around for decades after to export their propaganda.

Superficial differences: Nazism favors a certain nation, but communism favors a certain class. Which is worse? This can be endlessly debated, but setting aside the debate, proletarians are more widely spread around the world than Aryans, much as baseball fans are easier to find in the US than curling fans.

Finally, there is no single communist state, but multiple states. Communism had multiple do-overs, so anyone inclined to favor communism merely has to pick as an example the communist state that committed the fewest crimes.

In contrast, the Nazis did not get a do-over. Anyone inclined to favor Nazism does not have the option of picking a relatively innocent Nazi state as an example.

Ran said...

One difference is that people who support Nazism necessarily support the racism and genocide, as that's all that's survived of Nazi ideology; whereas people who support Communism probably don't support the mass murders, totalitarian police state, and so on, and simply believe in Marxist egalitarian ideals. (A lot of people distinguish between "communism," as distinct from "capitalism," and "Communism," as distinct from "democracy, or at least benevolent dictatorship.") And there are positive Communist role models, such as the Israeli kibbutzim. (The fact that most Israeli kibbutzim have now become mostly or entirely capitalist is perhaps testament to the instability of the communist economic system, but certainly kibbutzim were not police towns where they murdered or imprisoned dissenters.)

Wearing a hammer and sickle is strange, though, because they seem to be less Communist symbols than Soviet symbols. (I get that they're meant to represent the urban proletariat and rural peasantry, respectively, but still.) Fifty years ago I'd have seen the connection, but today I'd expect true Communists to do their best to distance themselves from Soviets.

JC said...

The people who wear Che shirts, when I've asked them, wear them not as an act of affinity with his actions but as a symbolic protest against his enemies.

That's where communism and nazism differ--both are odious, but communists tended to oppose equally-odious social orders, especially in Latin America, while Nazism was directed against an order that, while it had many flaws, was fundamentally decent.

Anonymous said...

I think Hilton Hotel Chain heiress, Paris Hilton, would agree with you that Capitalism beats Communism hands down. Capitalism rewards those most deserving, whereas Communism is just murderous thugery at best.

My elderly mother got accidentally knocked down by a minimum wage custodial employee at a Hilton hotel about a year ago. She underwent sugery on her hip and spent 2 months in a care facilty until she could walk with a walker. I doubt Paris even knows what happened to my mom let alone gives a hoot.

I very much like the buffet lunch at the Hilton - reasonable price and all you can eat. And to think that in the former Soviet Union the shops were bare and people had to wait on line for a loaf of bread! The irony is that for the next couple of weeks, Paris will have to make due on yucky prison food. Poor thing! I hope her parents can smuggle in a few chocolate bars for her to eat behind bars. I think See's Candies are the best, but they're quite overpriced. But price is no object for the well-to-do like the Hiltons.

Jeremy said...

So if you claim to be a libertarian, does it mean you supported Pinochet's murderous regime? Or any of the other violent Latin American neoliberal groups? It's interesting that support for broad economic theories only implies support for the worst people who have claimed to adhere to the same ideology when the ideology is communism.

Glen Whitman said...

Jeremy, I challenge you to name a single communist regime that has not been brutal and destructive.

JC said...

Also, I think it's ironic that Jeremy thinks libertarians would have anything to do with a regime as repressive as Pinochet. This is an econ blog, but libertarianism isn't all free markets--it's also civil liberties.

Mike Stark said...

I'm not a history major, so I'm really out of my element here. But...

I begin by looking at goals. Communists, at least ostensibly, had the goal of redistributing concentrations of wealth and creating a more equal society. Nazis were always about power consolidation, conformity and purification of race.

Nazis killed because they harbored hatred.

Communists killed because in redistributing concentrated wealth, they were constantly being challenged by powerful interests. In short order, the paranoia metastasized and they devoured their own tails, but that was probably as unintentional as it was inevitable.

Look at Chavez and/or Castro. Each of them nationalized resources concentrated in the hands of a non-native elite. Until Chavez came along, the native brown people were lucky to get jobs as maids for the European-descended coastal elites. Education? Health care? Not a priority if you were brown.

So along come these native populists. They decide the nation's resources are going to be used to benefit ALL of the people.

Fat effing chance say the invested interests. And they controlled the press. They were management in all of the oil firms. They controlled the banks. And they undermined Chavez at every turn. Oil management went on national strike. The press shrieked their criticism.

Yet the people still backed Chavez.

Next came a coup.

But the people still backed Chavez and forced him back into office.

Then came a recall election.

Chavez won with 62% of the vote - a greater percentage than any American president can claim.

But I fear for him.

Recently, he denied granting a renewal of license to the television network that had been most critical of him. Until then, free speech was never threatened in the slightest.

Has the slippery slope begun?

I dunno. But I relate the story because it shows the challenges communists had to overcome. You just can't go up against the rich and powerful and not expect them to come at you with everything they have.

Anyone remember Allende in Chile?

Anonymous said...

"Fat effing chance say the invested interests. And they controlled the press. They were management in all of the oil firms. They controlled the banks. And they undermined Chavez at every turn."

Very similar to how Nazis talk about the Jews. The communists, I agree fully, did not see themselves as evil but saw themselves as fighting a necessary defensive fight against evil aggressors.

So did the Nazis.

JC said...

The difference, in those terms, is that the communists -were- fighting evil aggressors. They were just using evil means to do so. The Nazis, on the other hand, used evil means to fight non-evil adversaries.

I hope we can agree that the colonial and early postcolonial orders in Latin America sucked, that the Batista dictatorship in Cuba was evil, repressive, brutal, and run for the benefit of a small elite, and that the same is true of Tsarist Russia, the British and French colonial regimes in the Arab world, and everywhere else communism has sprouted. That doesn't make communists any less evil, repressive, brutal, or any less of a confiscatory elite themselves, but the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.

Anonymous said...

Communism and Nazism were both totalitarian. Totalitarianism is by its nature xenophobic, since anything from the outside is by definition not under its control. And having everything under its control is by definition what totalitarianism is all about.

Nazism was a xenophobic creed: us Aryans good, everyone else to varying degrees bad. Therefore, totalitarianism was a good fit. On the other hand, all that xenophobia was good at making enemies. The solution to Nazism: get a bunch of mutual enemies of Nazism together, invade, and destroy the Nazis.

Communism was a universalist creed. So totalitarianism, with its xenophobia, was a bad fit. The solution to Communism: contain it until the massive internal contradiction destroys it for you.

It's the complete xenophobia that makes Nazism unlikable except to "Aryans," who don't exist. It's the component of universalism that makes Communism relatively acceptable.

Bob Hawkins

Hey, the Turing word "wnbobqp" contains my name!

tggp said...

I tend to side with Caplan with regard to the "good intentions" of communism vs Nazism.

If you want to talk about the corrupt white elite of latin america immiserating the population and driving them toward communism, Cuba is a bad example. Batista was mullatto and grandson of slaves, Castro was a well-educated white. Under Batista "Cuba took in more immigrants (per capita) than any country in the Western hemisphere", including from First-World countries like America, Italy and Spain. Now even Haitians don't flee to Cuba.

JC said...

TGGP: If your comment on Cuba was directed toward me, I would just like to point out that you inserted race into an argument that did not rely on it and had nothing to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Communism and Nazism were two sides of the same coin. They were the marketing methods used by the leaders to brainwash people into following them and allowing them to become totalitarians. In essence, they were the Nike Swoosh and Adidas stripes of their day. The end result was the same, total loss of freedom and death to enemies. And if communism was fighting those elite vested interests for the good of the weak, how come the vested interests ended up dead if they were so powerful?

My guess is that you don't feel the same revulsion towards communism because for so long it has been benignly treated by the mass media and you are subconsciously giving it a pass.

Earl Schlobodowicz

Gannon said...

As a Chilean I would like to say a few things about Pinochet. Make no mistake, although Allende was elected he governed against the rule of law and didn't respect the separation of powers, ignoring the legislative and judicial branch of the country. Allende was trying to establish a communist regime, but in Chile the middle class was to big to let that happen. The parliament destituted Allende but he continued to govern. A long and bloody civil war was looming ahead. Pinochet saved my country from an atrocious internal war. Allende's Unidad Popular was trying to impose it's regime through force. If you use the sword you die by the sword. The communists were already using violence to expropiate owners of their legitimate goods, therefore they have no moral right to question the militaty methods.
Larry has no idea what he is talking about.