Everyone over the age of thirty has seen the movie Casablanca several times. It is a classic love story, in which beautiful women turn out to count for less than politics and killing Germans takes precedence over both love and marriage. In actuality, Casablanca has very little to do with love: the love affair, told almost entirely in flashbacks, is a dreamy adolescent fantasy that might have been scripted by Hemingway after he convinced himself that a fat old man was every young girl’s dream.
Love is not the subject, but politics is, and Casablanca is a finely tuned piece of war propaganda featuring a commedia dell’ arte cast of stereotypes:
The American: embittered over the loss of an innocence he can only regain by fighting Nazis, supported by a democratic entourage that includes a Negro entertainer, a Russian bartender, a Spanish chanteuse, and a Jewish waiter. (If Bogart is Everyman, then Hollywood is Everywhere.
The Frenchman: a venal, skirt-chasing cynic who redeems his nation’s honor by joining the Free French in their mythical struggle against the Germans and their Vichy collaborators (never mind that most Frenchmen were quite content with a government that got them out of the war).
The Liberal Idealist: Who cares where he comes from or what he stands for? We only know that he carries the hopes and dreams of anti-fascist humanity in his suitcase.
The German: suave, unscrupulous, and probably a coward—the epitome of the reactionary/fascist order against which all good men and true must struggle. Even his occasional good manners are a symptom of the hypocrisy of the old regimes.
The film’s message is conveyed by Humphrey Bogart near the end, as he renounces Ingrid Bergman: “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” For two people, in or out of love, you can substitute any nation, religion, gender, social class, profession, or tradition; because to make distinctions, keep a faith, or maintain a tradition is undemocratic, unprogressive, and—in a word—fascist. The film was made years before virility per se became stigmatized as fascist, but no one, in my opinion, who would give up Ingrid Bergman for the sake of a propaganda slogan can be quite the man that Rick pretends to be.
Casablanca went into production as America was gearing up for war and isolationism was being redefined as treason. Rick, before his conversion, watches impassively as Peter Lorre is dragged off to be executed. When one of the patrons criticizes his nonchalance. Rick condenses his personal code into one sentence: “I don’t stick my neck out for anybody.” Sidney Greenstreet is more diplomatic: “In this world today, isolationism is not a practical policy.”
Intervention meant an alliance with Stalin, which meant in turn that there was to be no enemy to the left. American liberals and leftists in and out of government were justifying their praise of the mass-murdering Stalin by pretending that he was the lesser evil (as if that were possible), while at the same time they were lumping together French reactionaries, Spanish Falangistas, Italian fascists, German nationalists, and Nazi butchers into one sum: 666, the mark of the beast known as fascism.
Historians and political theorists have published hundreds of volumes on fascism in a vain attempt to find coherence in all the nationalist and reactionary movements that came to prominence in the 1920’s and 30’s. Leftists insist that fascism is a movement of the right, while conservatives are fond of pointing out that both Hitler and Mussolini were socialists.
There is some truth in both assertions, of course. On the one hand, both Mussolini and Hitler instituted economic controls of the type that are generally associated with socialism; on the other, most fascists and Nazis regarded communists and their socialist-liberal allies as the enemy. If there is any real connection among the different fascisms and nationalisms of the period, it may lie in their rejection of the bourgeois democratic order established after World War I, and while the Nazis, singing “Die Fahne hoch,” condemned the forces of “reaktion” their appeal to German national traditions was nothing if not reactionary.
The Great War marked the end not just of an era but of a civilization. Forms and institutions seemed to crumble overnight, and the old aristocracies disappeared to be replaced, as models, by the flapper and the speculator. It was the Jazz Age chronicled in New York by Scott Fitzgerald and by Sinclair Lewis in the Heartland. Whatever else “fascists” may have believed, they knew what they were against, and it was the Hobbesian reign of cheapness and vulgarity, the social fragmentation that Eliot described in The Wasteland and that drove his friend Pound into the adoration of Mussolini.
The nearest thing to a philosopher produced by fascism was Giovanni Gentile, who became Mussolini’s minister of public instruction. According to Gentile, fascism meant a reassertion of the nation and a reconciliation of the individual with the larger community in which he would be fulfilled. Unlike Marxism, a disgusting superstition that aims at the annihilation of the human person. Gentile’s fascism aimed at the higher expression of the person within the nation. However tenuous or incoherent Gentile’s ideas were (I find him unreadable in any language), he is clearly a reactionary and a throw-back to an Aristotelian and Thomistic (by way of Hegel) conception of the individual as an incomplete being that can only be fulfilled in marriage, family, and the ultimate community of the nation.
The two major obstacles to achieving the mystical union desired by nationalists were regional and local loyalties and political partisanship. Hitler brooded over the fact that North and South Germans are obviously different peoples—physically, culturally, and religiously—and concluded that race and nation were two separate things (an insight that American racial nationalists are still unable to grasp). Mussolini, in order to unify a divided Italy, eliminated the Sicilian language and used the army and bureaucracy as a means of uprooting Italians from their regions—a practice carried on by successor governments after the war.
In Spain, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the most attractive of the fascist leaders, regarded his country as a “universal destiny,” and while (unlike Mussolini) he appreciated regional differences, he opposed political regionalism as atavistic and destructive. José Antonio deplored the clumsy patriots who made fun of the Catalan dialect or tried to pit unitarian patriotism against the local: local attachments always win out because they are more basic. Spanish nationalism, he insisted, had to be rooted in Spain’s destiny, not in a set of racial or ethnic characteristics that were not shared by all Spaniards.
If José Antonio was ambiguous on the regional question, he was adamant in opposing political parties as an even more serious sign of decay than local separatism:
Political parties are born the day men lose the sense of there being over them a truth in whose sign peoples and individuals fulfill their missions in life. Prior to the birth of political parties, peoples and individuals knew that above their own reason stood the eternal truth, and, as the antithesis to eternal truth, the absolute lie. But there came a time when men were told that neither truth nor lies are absolute categories, that everything is debatable, that everything can be resolved by the vote, and that votes can decide whether the fatherland should continue united or should commit suicide, and even whether God does or does not exist. Men split up into groups, make propaganda, insult each other, until finally one Sunday they place a glass box on a table and start filling it up with little bits of paper on which it says whether God exists or does not exist and whether the fatherland should or should not commit suicide.
In reality, of course, fascist leaders did very little to eliminate partisan politics (except in the sense of establishing their own monopoly) or to restore genuine community; they indoctrinated their subjects with nationalist propaganda designed to inspire loyalty to the regime—a technique also employed by national socialists in Germany, the U.S.S.R., and the U.S.A., where Franklin Roosevelt instituted schemes of corporatist planning far beyond anything the Duce actually implemented.
But anti-fascists have made few sincere objections to the vices of fascism. How could they, seeing that most of them have been adopted by so-called democratic states that have embraced all the paraphernalia of ultra-nationalism: pledges of allegiance and loyalty oaths, reverence for the national flag, systems of public instruction that politicize every subject including mathematics and drivers’ ed, and tightly controlled national media (ABG-NBG-CBS-PBS-GNN) that script the political shadow-boxing of “free elections” at the same time they are filtering out nearly every trace of opposition to the regime.
America’s own national socialists of the left have accomplished their coup d’état by eliminating competing ideologies of the left and right. On the left, they succeeded in demonizing their Stalinist rivals (not enemies) as traitors, and much of the hysteria over communism was orchestrated by ex-communists who had made a tactical change of ground. When my late friend Russell Kirk used to say that certain ex-Marxists were genuinely conservative, I suppose he meant only that they opposed Stalin and believed in public order. But all good communists believe in establishing and maintaining a moral and political order that is tightly controlled by themselves. When Eugene Genovese was still a Stalinist, he vigorously defended public morality’, pointing out the no-nonsense approach the Soviets used against perverts and pornographers.
Communists and leftists are serious men, unlike liberals, and the alliance between neoconservative leftists and free-market conservatives would have been useful if only the conservatives had borne in mind that their allies were, in all matters that really count. Jacobin radicals who despise the petty patriotisms and Christian “bigotry” on which the right has been based since the French Revolution. On the strength of their anti-Stalinism, the neoconservative left was able to take over the American right. Collaborating with their rivals on the left, they were able to denigrate classical liberals and libertarians as anarchists or heartless capitalists and to stigmatize virtually every brand of traditional conservatism as a form of fascism. What was left was the gray via media of Harry Truman liberals and Scoop Jackson Democrats, a dull but crowded thoroughfare that can accommodate everyone from George Will to Christopher Hitchens (the gamut from A to A-prime). Right and left are separated only by a broken white line, and anyone who wants to pass is free to switch lanes.
Since the 1930’s, then, we have been living under a soft national- socialist regime. For a time, conservative writers, especially at National Review, attempted to cobble together an ideology that could tie together the various protests against the regime. “Fusionism,” for all its obvious faults—incoherence and cynicism first among them—did have the merit of opposing the New Deal, but as time went by, mainstream conservatives quietly dropped whatever convictions they might once have had, and while running in opposition to the regime, they joined it.
In describing the conservative leadership in Congress as New Dealers, I intend no insult to politicians who forthrightly express their admiration for FDR without larding their pronouncements with hypocritical references to Edmund Burke or Irving Babbitt. If there were a conservative argument being made somewhere in Washington or New York, Republican politicians might well listen. But there is not. As we have pointed out in Chronicles over the past ten years, the movement is dead, and we shall see Latin made the official language of the United States long before we shall hear a conservative argument echoing in the halls of Congress or the seminar room of a Washington think tank.
The national socialists have won, and in their victory they have annihilated all attachments except for self-gratification and obedience to the state from which all blessings flow: family and friends, region and race, faith and profession—none has any legitimate standing in the eyes of the regime which usurps the ultimate loyalty that we owe only to God. “Let goods and kindred go,” they sing, “this mortal life also,” and increasingly they are tempted to throw in the next line; “the body we can kill/if only for the thrill.”
Most political myths have a limited shelf-life. Who, apart from Bill Kauffman, will defend the honor of the Loco-Focos? To a generation of Americans who agree with Bill Clinton and Norman Podhoretz that America was invented in the 20th century, the 1940’s are ancient history. No matter how hard they try, with films like The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man, the anti-fascists are running out of steam. Few Americans under the age of 50 even know who fought whom in World War II—the public schools have seen to that—and, if they are under 30, still fewer care. An ex-fascist has become a dominant political force in Italy, and here in America Pat Buchanan was hardly damaged when national-socialist Bill Bennett accused him of flirting with fascism.
What hurt Buchanan was the solid shield-wall of the media, reinforced by their “conservative” camp followers. But Buchanan’s issues—which might be summed up as “America for Americans”—are not going away, and as the myth of antifascism fades away like a nightmare in the sunlight, it is now possible, for the first time since the 1940’s, for a real American right to lift up its head. Such a movement will be rooted in human nature and in nature’s God, in the principles that underlie our Constitution, in the particularities of our experiences as well as in our memories of the European civilization that formed the minds and characters of our ancestors who came here as colonists and immigrants.
Any true conservative ideology will be based not on the mind of John Adams and Edmund Burke but on the deeper moral sentiments of kinship and love, patriotism and faith, ambition and revenge —”hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate.” The saving grace of Casablanca is the sentimental song that Rudy Vallee had already recorded some years earlier. Mocking the film’s devotion to the abstractions of anti-fascism, Dooley Wilson told the audience what they really believed, that the problems of two people are all there are on this sublunar world, that every ideology—Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Democratic Capitalism—is an enemy of what Eliot called “the permanent things.” The songwriter was even more to the point: “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
Time has gone by, and it has stranded the national socialists in their seats of power: rich, smug, and alienated. They own the government and the stock exchanges; they command the army and have an arsenal of nuclear weapons. They control the words we read and the images that flicker on our retinal screens, but try as they might, they cannot suppress the most basic instincts of human nature. The Soviets tried to eliminate competition and status, and they devastated the economy. Our own leaders have gone deeper, poisoning the minds of expectant mothers against the babies they bear in their wombs, inspiring children with hatred and contempt for their parents and their ancestors, chopping away at all the ties between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors and replacing them all with a nexus, not of cold hard cash, but of government-issued paper.
Incapable of human affections themselves, the leaders of our regime cannot begin to realize the disgust they inspire in so many ordinary people who are starved for the things their grandparents took for granted. Like Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s play, they cannot believe the primitive natives are capable of resistance, and like the Emperor Jones, they will realize their mistake only when the drums start beating in the jungles of the American heartland.
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