Saturday, 28 October 2017

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

"You should be careful about what you pretend to be, because in the end you are what you pretend to be"

Some stories don't age well, some are timeless, and a few like Mother Night get better and more important with age. Mother Night is about an American émigré who grew up in Germany between the wars. When the Nazi's come to power he stays on the country and is recruited as a spy for the American intelligence service. He is called Howard W. Campbell, Jr, a well respected playwright who is taken into the Propaganda ministry. 

The rub and the point of the story is that in order for Howard W. Campbell, Jr to rise and get close the Nazi party leadership he not only has to convince them he's a believer in Aryan supremacy and German victory he has to prove himself as a master propagandist. And he passes with flying colours, he develops a radio show addressing English speaking audiences as the `last free American`. He also forms a volunteer army for American prisoners, he appeared in Slaughter House Five to recruit in Dresden.

He does not believe a word of the horrible Nazi things he says in his role, but he's so good at what he does even the deranged and ridiculous anti-Semitic rants he delivers are received very, very well by his audience. He may not believe that "Rosenfeld" is a Jewish agent corrupting America from within, but many who listened to his radio broadcasts did. Even after the war he becomes a celebrity amongst the sad fringe of neo-fascists who diligently reprint and re-record his propaganda to inspire themselves. 

This is the issue, we are never given any reason to doubt Howard W. Campbell, Jr's sincerity when he refutes and ridicules his own Nazi lies, but the question of whether it matters is not quite as clear. Several characters point out to him that he served the Nazi regime so well in his endeavours that a true believer couldn't have done better. And we do see the effects of his poison seeping into a new generation. He may of made up all that nonsense about Jewish Bolshevism, but hundreds of angry and confused people the world over still believe in it, and are using it to support and strengthen their movement. 

The story is about the relationship between intentions and actual effects. And its for this reason that I think Mother Night has become more important than ever in the internet age. The internet has lead to the growth of subcultures and bubbles, one drawback to this is that it has stimulated the rise of "Irony culture". Irony is now basically a shield for any toxic nonsense you want to publicise, just adopt a flippant tone, and assure people you're joking if and when you get a backlash and there you go. Racism, sexism anti-Semitism, the use of slurs and threats is suddenly ok now, its being "Ironic".

Mother Night in a hundred and sixteen pages explains pretty clearly why even if that were true -I'm going to leave aside the possibility of lying for the moment- it doesn't in anyway change the fact that often what's being passed off as Ironic memes, is just bigotry toxic ideas with a wink. If you post a meme to Facebook using racial stereotypes, your still pushing racial stereotypes, and encouraging others to do so too. If you respond to other users on a forum using slurs in a jokey we're all in this together way you're still using slurs and encouraging others to do the same. If your joking amongst friends on a public platform you're still saying its ok to insult minorities to a wider audience.

Irony used in this way (and to be honest a lot of it doesn't even qualify as Irony) is no different from sincerity. You and your close circle of friends might not have a bigoted bone in their bodies, but their are plenty who do. And you'd be amazed at just what some of them can latch onto for encouragement. Quite a few people think one way to enjoy Irony without actively offending by going to extreme outlandishness, but that was what Howard W. Campbell, Jr did. Its also showing a complete lack of understanding of how the reactionary subculture works.

Actual racist talking points can be shockingly daft and wacky. It would be funny to hear how car parts breaking down often is part of a Jewish conspiracy to say wreck a nations economic efficiency via traffic jams[1] if they weren't deadly serious and act upon these fears. You cannot come up with a racist theory so ludicrous that a segment of the far right won't accept and make use of. I'll give a personal example, I make a lot of pdfs and I write a lot of blogs, I've discovered online archives of Fascist texts with pdfs I've made and posts I've written. One that stood out also had a lot of Kropotkin and Bordiga and Marx nestled between Mosley and Evola.

And none of those were jokes they were rather dry even boring texts about economics and social history.

I think a big example of this lack of understanding the targets of ridicule was the Nazbol/Anfash meme that was popular on Twitter a few months back. There was a spate of jokes and parody accounts for members of the "National Bolsheviks" and "Anarcho-Fascism". The problem being that these are actual ideologies with real members and activists. Nazbol is an undercurrent of Russian Fascism but it has a presence in several other Eastern European nations. All the ones I've encountered have been Germans.

I can assure you from experience they're just as loopy as the joke posts. But that's the trouble, if you can't tell a joke from a real threat aren't you just making it easier for the threats to move around in public? If you can use the "just a joke excuse" to diffuse criticism and backlash why can't they? Everyone's free to do what they want and I can't stop anyone who wants to meme ironic bigotry, but you should ask yourselves are you ok with people taking your jokes and using them in sincere campaigns of bigotry?





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1: That was in Four Lions, but I have seen Fash types seriously suggest this



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