(Image: Sky News)
Have we forgotten what fascism means? Today calling someone a “fascist” is more an insulting slur than a description of one’s political ideology.
In a recent speech historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argued that too often is fascism confused with nationalism. Harari argues that nationalism has been one of the most benevolent ideologies in human history. Nations are communities built up of millions of people who don’t know each other yet care about one another and cooperate because they share a common belief in nationhood.
Some people like John Lennon imagined that without nationalism the world could live as one. Far more likely argues Harari is that we would be living in tribal chaos. The most progressive and prosperous nations in the world such as Sweden, Switzerland and Japan all have a strong sense of national identity. Conversely, countries with a weak sense of nationalism such as Congo, Libya or Afghanistan tend to be violent and poor.
The difference between nationalism and fascism is that while nationalism tells you the nation is unique fascism tells you the nation is supreme. In democratic nations most people have multiple layers to their national identity. For example I am loyal to my family, my employer my friends and my football team. None of these loyalties preclude loyalty to my nation. And when my identities do conflict, I strike a balance and hierarchy based on what is most important at the time.
Fascism on the other hand tells us to ignore complex identities. It tells us the only identity that matters is national. All moral and ethical questions can be answered by simply asking, is this good or bad for the nation? For the fascist, whether a movie, monument or massacre is justified depends on whether it advances or undermines the goals of the nation. Uncomfortable truths or individuals do not matter, what matters is collective order and national harmony.
The recent 29th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre serves as a stark reminder to the horror of fascism. (Even if the description of modern China as a ‘fascist State’ is debatable.) Yet Harari argues that most of us do not understand fascism. In Western popular culture fascism is depicted as “evil” “savage” “cruel” with its leaders imagined as Disney villain caricatures.
If that was the case why is it so seductive? Why would people follow such evil, ugly villains? The problem with this depiction is that real-life fascism often appears valiant, beautiful and destined. This is something Christianity has understood for a long time. In Christian art, Satan is often depicted as the fallen angel – beautiful, charming and difficult to resist.
Fascism feels irresistible for similar reasons. Beauty, nostalgia and propaganda cultivate the belief of belonging to the most beautiful and special group in the world, the nation. To resist a return to fascist dictatorship we must not fear the politician who tells the ugly truth but the one that tells the beautiful lie.