Ridiculing neo-Nazis and other extremists can be a powerful tool against intolerance, but it can also backfire badly. It is imperative that we offer both carrots and sticks.
As neo-Nazis and other hate groups have begun asserting themselves recently, opponents have searched for appropriate responses. This has become pressing since the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
One of the more interesting responses to intolerance is humor. The German city of Wunsiedel found itself besieged every year by neo-Nazis, because it was the former site of Rudolf Hess’s grave. The majority of the town’s citizens opposed the neo-Nazis, but had no legal way of stopping the annual infestation.
Until they resorted to ridicule.
Right against the Right
Moises Velasquez-Manoff describes Wunsiedel’s strategy: the people of the town turned the annual march into a festive occasion. Under the Rechts Gegen Rechts (Right against the Right) program, local businesses donate money to charity for each meter the neo-Nazis march. People line the route, and many make jokes and generally ridicule the marchers.
In effect, they mocked Macht.
Not surprisingly, interest in the march has waned since the locals began laughing at the protesters.
Caracalla the Monster
But laughter has to be deployed carefully.
When speaking of monsters among Roman emperors, Nero and Caligula often first emerge in the popular imagination. They were nothing compared to Caracalla. Gibbon described Caracalla as “a monster whose life disgraced human nature,” and “the common enemy of mankind.”
An excerpt from my book:
After the death of Caracalla’s father, the Emperor Septimus Severus, shared control of the empire passed to Caracalla and his brother Geta. Trouble erupted between the two, and in the first year Caracalla arranged a meeting with his brother and their mother. During the meeting Caracalla’s troops burst in and assassinated Geta, who died in his mother’s arms. Caracalla thereby achieved sole control of the empire, but control was not enough. Insensitive to both his late father’s wishes and his mother’s suffering, he implemented a damnatio memoriae upon his brother: Geta’s image was removed everywhere it appeared, on portraits, busts, and coins. He then killed perhaps 20,000 of Geta’s friends and supporters.
The Alexandrian Egyptians, underestimating Caracalla’s savagery, lampooned the emperor over these events. Caracalla sailed to Egypt, announcing that he wished to worship the god Amun, and pay tribute to Alexander’s victories. Herodian, however, relates Caracalla’s true intent:
Herodian on Caracalla in Alexandria
The emperor therefore joined the Alexandrians in celebrating and merrymaking. When he observed that the city was overflowing with people who had come in from the surrounding area, he issued a public proclamation directing all the young men to assemble in a broad plain, saying that he wished to organize a phalanx in honor of Alexander similar to his Macedonian and Spartan battalions, this unit to bear the name of the hero.
He ordered the youths to form in rows so that he might approach each one and determine whether his age, size of body, and state of health qualified him for military service. Believing him to be sincere, all the youths, quite reasonably hopeful because of the honor he had previously paid the city, assembled with their parents and brothers, who had come to celebrate the youths’ expectations. Caracalla now approached them as they were drawn up in groups and passed among them, touching each youth and saying a word of praise to this one and that one until his entire army had surrounded them.
The youths did not notice or suspect anything. After he had visited them all, he judged that they were now trapped in the net of steel formed by his soldiers’ weapons, and left the field, accompanied by his personal bodyguard. At a given signal the soldiers fell upon the encircled youths, attacking them and any others present. They cut them down, these armed soldiers fighting against unarmed, surrounded boys, butchering them in every conceivable fashion. Some did the killing while others outside the ring dug huge trenches; they dragged those who had fallen to these trenches and threw them in, filling the ditch with bodies. Piling on earth, they quickly raised a huge burial mound. Many were thrown in half-alive, and others were forced in unwounded. A number of soldiers perished there too; for all who were thrust into the trench alive, if they had the strength, clung to their killers and pulled them in with them. So great was the slaughter that the wide mouths of the Nile and the entire shore around the city were stained red by the streams of blood flowing through the plain.
Caracalla then unleashed his troops on the larger city for several days of indiscriminate slaughter, where an estimated 20,000 people died. This was the price of lèse majesté in ridiculing the Emperor of Rome.
So there is a danger to ridicule. The narcissist will make it his life’s mission to get even. Remember, there is more than one pundit who thinks that Trump’s run for President began at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, when Obama and Seth Myers publicly humiliated him. Trump was quiet for months after that, we must assume stewing for a while, and then planning. In 2015 he began exacting his revenge, launching his campaign with a xenophobic tirade against Mexicans. It is hardly surprising that the alt-right flocked to him, and that various bigots have become more assertive during Trump’s tenure.
Then consider Trump’s conduct at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner. Trump squirmed as he was lampooned, and when his turn came up, his jokes about Hillary were clumsy and largely un-funny. He then made fun of his wife, but made almost no jokes about himself, certainly no biting jokes. When they came to tell Claudius that he had been named Emperor of Rome, they found him hiding behind the curtains.
When they came to tell Trump he had been named President of the United States, they found him hiding behind his wife.
Trump, like many of his followers, can’t handle humor. Remember that the only Republican candidate who landed any punches on Trump was Rubio, through ridicule. But Rubio’s approach to humor was ham-fisted, and he couldn’t keep it up. Humor isn’t Hillary’s style, so she couldn’t deploy it against Trump, either. (Someone like Al Franken, on the other hand, might very well have made Trump lose sphincter control.)
Eat ’em Like Junk Food
So ridicule is a powerful weapon, but one that can backfire. It is important to remember is that ridicule is a stick. We have to offer carrots, too.
Or bananas. In Wunsiedel, along the route of the march people laid out bananas for the marchers to snack on. And the money they raised for charity? It was for EXIT Deutschland, which helps neo-Nazi extremists escape radicalism.
The Cajuns and Creoles used a similar strategy some years back. The local university owns one of the largest primate research facilities in the world. PETA showed up to protest. The university welcomed them, served them snacks and drinks, and set up a canopy so the protesters could cool off and take a break. They haven’t been back.
In an earlier post I mentioned a story about Paul’s 1st century church building efforts. Where he was persecuted, he generally founded churches; where he was treated respectfully – Athens – he founded no church.
The 1994 film The Shadow starring Alec Baldwin was a box office flop, and scores a 35 on the website Rotten Tomatoes (it has made a fair amount of money since release as a cult film). There is a scene in it that is a powerful metaphor, however, and at times I have used it counseling patients. The metaphor involves the phurba, a deadly flying knife, which can only be controlled by a disciplined mind. Baldwin’s character fails to defeat the phurba the first time he encounters it, and after he is wounded by it, he enters into a program of years of training and study.
In the climax of the film, however, the antagonist has gained control of the phurba, and directs it to kill The Shadow. As he is about to succumb, Baldwin’s character realizes what he must do to control the phurba: he must release it.
As long as The Shadow fights, the phurba will fight back. When he lets go and stops fighting he controls both the phurba and the situation.
The phurba is historically designed for just this insight. The three-bladed dagger is an Ayurvedic device, and the blades represent the three traps of attachment, ignorance, and aversion. All of these describe the neo-Nazis’ reaction against modernity, as well as the exacerbating reaction to their reaction.
It is ironic that Velasquez-Manoff wrote the NY Times article about ridiculing the neo-Nazis; his cousin, my childhood friend Tony Kushner, wrote the screenplay for Munich, which makes an important point here. As I discussed, Tony withstood a lot of criticism from the Jewish community for his sympathetic portrayal of the terrorists who planned and carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games.
I would have been disappointed if Tony had written it otherwise. In popular literature, the world divides neatly into good people and bad people, which is how neo-Nazis, terrorists, and bigots see those whom they condemn.
On the other hand, in great literature, everyone is a reflection of ourselves.
Or almost everyone. As I have also noted, there are real Iagos in the world. These are lost, they are too far gone and will probably never become whole again.
But we need to remember that for most neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Alt-Rightists, xenophobia and hatred are secondary. Their primary motivations comprise more primal fears: the fear of exclusion, dispossession, and abandonment. When we fight against them, when we offer sticks but no carrots, we are only intensifying those fears, and their hatred of us.
Germany still suffers from the hard division between modernism and bigotry which almost destroyed the country, and modernity with it. So perhaps they are more aware of the dead-end strategy of greeting anger with anger, and intolerance with intolerance. When we pursue retribution, we polarize the opposition, we give them fuel for their anger, and as we try to strip away their humanity, we lose our humanity as well. It becomes us against them, an insane football mentality where progress is impossible.
If we choose to ridicule the extreme right, we need to remember that the long-term goal is not to exclude them; after all, that is what they seek to do to others. If we are to save our nation, we want to re-include them whenever possible.
Because that is the central consideration in all of this: we cannot maintain our own humanity, by deny others their humanity.
Photo still from The Shadow, courtesy of Universal Pictures, © 1994, all rights reserved.