Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fascism

There are times when I must admit that I grew up in a very different world from the one that exists now.  In the spring and summer of 1978, when I was coming out of Grade 8, I read the book Mein Kampf.  There was a copy in my junior high school library, and when the end of year came and I still hadn't finished the book, I purchased a copy at a local bookstore.  It wasn't hard to find.

Of course, I did not understand much of it.  I comprehended the geographical references just fine, I had a strong working knowledge of both the 1st and 2nd World Wars (because I was a boy and I was fascinated with those things from even a much younger age) and I knew what hatred was.  What I did not understand was the context ... why anyone would write these things, believe them, pursue them.  Like anyone today, I knew about Hitler, I knew about his rise to power and I knew about his demise ... they were making movies about it all the time, and there was practically a Hitler section at the W.H. Smith's at the mall.

Still, most of the events and circumstances - the Weimar Republic, the inflation, the psychological effect of losing the war, even the history of the Jewish people in Europe - were things unknown to me.  I knew the war; I did not know the people.

I was very affected by the book.  Mostly, I was concerned about how appealing it was, particularly since at the time I was a mostly abused, brighter-than-my-classmates nerd who had already learned how easy it was to lie and get away with it.  Frighteningly easy.  Mein Kampf did not encourage me to rush into the arms of a fascist ideology; it scared me right away from it.  I think probably, had I not run across the book, I could have conceived of some of its contents on my own ... which may have had more frightening consequences, as I might have embraced those ideas from a place of anger and ignorance.

If you have not seen the 2008 German movie The Wave I would strongly recommend it.  It is a better film than the original 1981 movie, which was based on the 1981 novel by Todd Strasser, which in turn was based upon the actual experiment performed by Ron Jones, a teacher in Palo Alto California, in 1973.  According to Wikipedia's page on The Third Wave,

"Jones started a movement called "The Third Wave" and told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy.  The idea that democracy emphasizes individuality was considered as a drawback of democracy, and Jones emphasized this main point of the movement in its motto: 'Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.' "

The effects ... as the gentle reader can obtain from the last page linked above ... were educational.  The German movie goes past the reality, but the presentation was excellent.

It is the speed with which the movement took effect that is the most terrifying element of the experiment, which cannot help but demonstrate for anyone willing to look hard and thoughtfully at the results how deep is the craving for unification.  It helps one to get a sense of the preparedness people have in assigning legitimacy to something which, on the surface, seems honest and positive.

Models upon which armies were built throughout the 19th century took advantage of the psychological acceptance of human beings in this regard to compile the forces that massed themselves together and marched to their deaths in World War 1.  While it may seem impossible to comprehend how so many hundreds of thousands could willingly take part in the kind of mass butchery that was that war (quite different from the technological struggle of WW2), the fact was that the armies themselves were convinced they were behaving rightly and that they were spending their lives for a good and noble cause.  That nothing good came out of it was unimportant; veterans continue - have continued - to believe that something DID come out of it, something that must have been for the good because it was believed to be for the good.  It is as fine an example of cognitive dissonance as ever was, celebrated annually every November 11th by people who did not even fight in it.

Hitler's Mein Kampf did nothing more than tap into the groundwork of the 19th century's fabrication of mass armies, mixing in the added special ingredient of an imaginary good purpose towards which those armies could be put.  The imagination of that purpose tapped into something that had been there all along as well - the fear of prejudice, the fear that is so easily turned to hatred when all else fails to resolve it.

But why did it take so long to hit upon the formula?  Or technology, if you will, since we are talking about the technologies described in the game Civilization IV.  Why is there no fascism until the early 20th century?  The armies were there.  The social behaviorism of humans was there.  The racism was there.  What was the combining factor?

A better question:  Why does D&D go all the way back to the medieval age, and why does that time hold a romance the 18th century never can?  Why are roleplaying games based upon the French or English or American revolutions not more popular?  Why do we not pretend to play mauling street toughs on the streets of New York in 1810?

It is not merely that the Industrial Revolution made everything squalid and unpleasant, and we want no part of that.  Industrialization made possible the plentiful distribution of weapons and uniforms, the educational apparatus that could encourage everyone in the same country to grow up the same, think the same, have the same aspirations and respect the same peoples.  Industrialization established a rigidity to life that transformed us into ... well, neurotic freaks.  Waking up at the same time, marching to work in the same way, collecting our paycheques together and celebrating in the same establishments ... and all the time with our minds turned towards a reconciliation of the ambition that was installed in us in school and our utter failure to achieve what was expected.

We are neurotic, in a manner that no one pre-Revolution ever was.  Think about the symptoms:  anxiety, moodiness, worry, envy, jealousy ... we are a patchwork of failure and fear of failure, of the resentment of success, the fear of being unloved, the fear that we will be expected to 'love' others we simply never will and so on.  As biological creatures we are a fucking mess - and something that arises that seems to untangle that mess, even for an hour, is manna from heaven.  Why was Ron Jones' experiment embraced so heartily by children almost immediately?  Not because it meant they did not have to think, no; it was because it gave them something to think about that seemed pure and fresh and CLEAR.  Compare that to what your parents and teachers tell you about getting an education and getting a career.

D&D provides that exact same escape.  It offers a universe where the principles are understandable and without equivocation.  I am a fighter.  I fight.  I am an adventurer.  I adventure.  I do not march, I do not follow, I do not take orders from above, not even from the Dungeon Master.  I want freedom and I want an total absence of moral responsibility for my actions.  Kill orcs?  Please, yes, more.  Abscond with heaps of treasure?  That's nice, thank you.  Ignore the beggars, slash the throats of guards, steal and pillage?  Oh my, feels good.

Only I said at the top of this that I am very aware that the world is changing.  You can't buy a copy of Mein Kampf quite so easily now.  And there are many, many more influences in the game telling you that a moral free-for-all isn't acceptable any more.  There is a steady, subtle instigation of social responsibility that is continuously invested into the game, most of it under the disguise of those seeking status and respectability.

Perhaps they're right.  I've just written a post associating our social predilection for fascism with the game of D&D as it was originally played ... and unless you've stopped reading, your head is spinning with the socially-inculcated insistence that the association simply ISN'T possible.  No doubt you're going back through the words, looking for the sleight of hand that I've pulled to make it seem reasonable.

Well, I won't cheat you.  The sleight is simply this.  People frustrated with the pursuit of traditional success - and most people are, since they don't achieve it - are ripe for the influence of fascism.  And people frustrated with the social stratum that dictates they must be rigid round pegs are ripe for the influence of D&D.  Once you accept that the first half of the equation isn't an opinion, it is psychologically reproduceable.  And you are not magically exempt from the dictates of your psychology.  You're the sort of social deviant to which D&D appeals.  You may be vulnerable to other things that have equal appeal.

Now, you may hurrumph and tell me how full of it I am.  You ought to be frightened.  You ought to be re-evaluating your motivations.  But that is only going to contribute to your neuroses, and lets face it:   YOU HATE your neuroses.  You hate them so much, in fact, that you'll do just about anything to get around them.

Yes, that's right.  Anything.

4 comments:

Konsumterra said...

I always thought Hitler would have made a typical bronze age king

Alexis said...

He wouldn't have. Hitler never did his own fighting.

Tom Coenen said...

I saw the first 'The Wave' movie in school.
I was quite impressed by it.
In a group discussion afterwards we felt that most children in our class would succumb to the clarity and social pressure.

In the D&D games I have played in, actions have consequences.
There are evil characters that do the things you mention.
If they manage to get away with it, more power to them.

joe said...

I remember reading the Wave novel in high school; a friend of mine stole a copy of Mein Kompf from the high school library. I think he still has it.

My group of friends that eventually became my gaming group had a dread fascination with the Nazis before we got into D&D.

Excellent post.