Thompson, Arendt, and the ‘nazi’ word

11/06/2014 § Leave a comment

I was recently re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72  (for a sample, see here). Words fail, really. Thompson’s approach was so…different, and that’s true for his political writing and his living.

A seemingly minor point, but as I was reading along I noticed the almost-casual use of the word ‘nazi’. Maybe it’s the internet era and Godwin’s law, maybe it’s the mythologising that goes with the distance of time — the War isn’t something in which we participated (my WWII-veteran relatives died in the last few years) but something we tell stories about — but it seems the word has become monstrous in a phantasmagorical sense.

But, of course, Thompson, writing in 1972, would have had a better idea of what ‘nazi’ means than I do, forty years later. He grew up in that generation too young to serve in WWII but old enough to know what was going on. And certainly, in his military service and journalism career, he would have met many vets and heard their stories.

So, when he calls someone a ‘nazi’, he knows what he means. But, do I?

As it happens, a movie about Hannah Arendt was recently playing in Wellington. I couldn’t go, but it reminded me that Corey Robin uses Arendt as one of the four political philosophers in his book Fear: the history of a political idea (several keys ideas are picked up here). Arendt is famous for The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Robin argues that she pursues two different lines of thinking about fear in the two books, and that many Arendt (errant?) academics focus on Origins without understanding the lessons of Eichmann.

The key to Eichmann, both the man and the book, is careerism:

Many people believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism.

Slavoj Zizek also discusses Arendt. In How to read Lacan, he points to the key twist in perspective that Himmler and other performed to justify / validate / rationalise their actions:

Most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they are doing things which bring humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, “instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”

I came to realise that Thompson was not being casual in calling the politicians he observed ‘nazis’. He was calling it as he saw it, as Arendt saw the hustlers and operators of her day. He saw them as mean little careerists, willing to destroy anything that got in the way of their pursuit of power, happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and able to wash their hands of any stain by invoking the Himmler twist — the more horrible the deed, the more noble am I to have done it.

We still need such a word. ‘Nazi’ doesn’t cut it anymore, for the reasons given. But the impulse is not gone. In this era in which far-right parties are gaining ground in national and European elections, we need to be able to talk about what they are and why they exist.

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