Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Weimar Days

Back in April, I saw the recording artist Ke$ha perform one of her chart-toppers on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. The spectacle resembled a musical number from Cabaret, even though she and her backup dancers were dressed and acted like robots from space. This insubstantial pop starlet appeared to be attempting some obtuse political statement with her absurdly overblown stage show featuring two U.S. flags, one draped over the mic stand and the other lining the underside of her cape.

I've fallen far behind the music scene these days, but Ke$ha seems to be a cut-rate composite of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, the Taylor Dane to their Madonna. It's astonishing to me, a child of the '80s and '90s, that a pop star of her slim caliber would try such ambitious social commentary. Of course, I wasn't around for the late '60s or early '70s, but there seem to be disturbing parallels between our era and the Weimar Republic, which produced an abundance of politically-conscious art.

Glenn Beck's rally to restore America's "honor" is Exhibit A in this theory. The Right has been thoroughly enraged by Obama's "global apology tour," his speeches overseas that expressed a teensy bit of regret over the recent conduct of U.S. foreign policy. They feel that he's dishonoring the glorious, righteous wars we've been waging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more than that, he's suggesting that America is capable of making mistakes when it comes to war. Such self-criticism rattles one of the pillars of their world, American exceptionalism. This is the belief that America is "the shining city on the hill" (in Reagan's words) chosen by God to spread Truth, Justice and the American Way.

They can't imagine that, as far as our foreign policy is concerned, the U.S.A. may be nothing more than the latest in a long line of empires that use war merely to aggrandize their power. The only moral distinction between us and previous empires is the lengths to which we'll go to rationalize mass murder. Our forerunners were comfortable with conquest. We must convince ourselves that our way of life is threatened before we can bomb Third World peasants with a clear conscience.

The Nazis had a similar version of German history. It denied or rationalized the crimes Germany had committed in World War I and led the Nazis to believe that the Fatherland had been betrayed and disgraced by its leaders when they accepted responsibility and punishment for starting the war. German exceptionalism convinced the Nazis they should rule the world and exterminate all non-Aryans. Of course, most American exceptionalists do not desire global dominion. But, if you claim the right to destroy a country that poses no threat to your own (like Iran), what's the difference?

The other red flag thrown up by the Beck rally was its co-opting of the civil rights movement. Beck calls himself and his Tea Party pals the true inheritors of that movement, a claim whose absurdity transcends both comedy and gobsmackery. They are the most sheltered and privileged demographic in history. It recalls the twisted logic of the Nazis insisting that Christian Germans were oppressed by Jews, a minority that had known centuries of subjugation in Europe.

I know I'm guilty of the cliche of comparing my political adversaries to the Nazis, but the similarities are too striking to ignore. And, as I'm sure we've all heard, knowing history is the best way to avoid repeating it. Of course, if you erase the unpleasant parts, you might be inclined to repeat it.

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