Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Fascist Clown

From Zizek's "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" speech at Cooper Union:

Look at have a chief of state (de facto), who consciously ruins his own authority, makes fun of himself, it's really like -- Michel Foucault, in his late seminars, spoke about eblouissement...Groucho Marx in power, clown in power -- this is effectively approaching. For example....I can't -- I couldn't believe it... a couple of weeks ago, Berlusconi's press representative, a lawyer, said it's a filthy lie that Berlusconi is impotent: he's ready to prove in court he's not impotent. I'm just asking -- what? how? you know what I mean..... I see this as an all-around tendency, this eblouissation of power, loss of the dignity of power.

From Zizek's essay in the LRB, "Berlusconi in Tehran":
The last tragic US president was Richard Nixon: he was a crook, but a crook who fell victim to the gap between his ideals and ambitions on the one hand, and political realities on the other. With Ronald Reagan (and Carlos Menem in Argentina), a different figure entered the stage, a ‘Teflon’ president no longer expected to stick to his electoral programme, and therefore impervious to factual criticism (remember how Reagan’s popularity went up after every public appearance, as journalists enumerated his mistakes). This new presidential type mixes ‘spontaneous’ outbursts with ruthless manipulation.

The wager behind Berlusconi’s vulgarities is that the people will identify with him as embodying the mythic image of the average Italian: I am one of you, a little bit corrupt, in trouble with the law, in trouble with my wife because I’m attracted to other women. Even his grandiose enactment of the role of the noble politician, il cavaliere, is more like an operatic poor man’s dream of greatness. Yet we shouldn’t be fooled: behind the clownish mask there is a state power that functions with ruthless efficiency. Perhaps by laughing at Berlusconi we are already playing his game. A technocratic economic administration combined with a clownish façade does not suffice, however: something more is needed. That something is fear, and here Berlusconi’s two-headed dragon enters: immigrants and ‘communists’ (Berlusconi’s generic name for anyone who attacks him, including the Economist).

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon hit, provides the basic co-ordinates for understanding the ideological situation I have been describing. The fat panda dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. He is chosen by blind chance (beneath which lurks the hand of destiny, of course), to be the hero to save his city, and succeeds. But the film’s pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by a cynical humour. The surprise is that this continuous making-fun-of-itself makes it no less spiritual: the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!’ This is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them. Berlusconi is our own Kung Fu Panda. As the Marx Brothers might have put it, ‘this man may look like a corrupt idiot and act like a corrupt idiot, but don’t let that deceive you – he is a corrupt idiot.’

Berlusconi's clownish style may seem new to Zizek -- and indeed it may be new in Europe which is, after all, the historical home of serious fascists* -- but it's old hat for we Americans. Zizek has fun with the type (I suspect he takes immense pleasure in comparing Berlusconi to Ahmadinejad, and who but a fascist clown could blame him?) and apparently Foucault, a generation ago, toyed with it as well, but the first real aficionado had to be our own Mark Twain (whom Zizek quotes in another connection) and the first one to make a career of fascist clown appreciation was, of course, H.L. Mencken. Then there was Gore Vidal, Hunter Thompson (who himself became a sort of caricature of a fascist clown in his old age), Al Franken, and, during the 80's, Christopher Hitchens.

Of course we have a tradition of fascist clown watchers because we've had a tradition of fascist clown rulers: for Twain there was the entire McKinley administration and then, finally, Theodore Roosevelt in his own right -- the prototype, as it were, of the archetype; for Mencken there was Harding, Coolidge and (so Mencken thought) Bryan; for Vidal, Hitchens, and Thompson there was Nixon (and cronies such as Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy), Reagan, and Poppy Bush; for Franken there was Dubya and of course the mouthpiece of the Fascist Clown party, Rush Limbaugh.

A fascist clown is a living laff-riot, a strawman come to life, Chaplin's Little Dictator irl, like, for real. It's almost impossible to take him seriously -- until he has you tortured, bombs your country, or simply grinds you into poverty.

I think it was when Mr. Burns was building the sun-blocker ("since the beginning of time man has yearned to destroy the sun!"), that his sycophant and until then co-conspirator in various evil schemes Mr. Smithers finally said something like, "Sorry, Mr. Burns, but you've just crossed the line from everyday villainy to cartoonish super-villainy" and opted out. That's exactly what fascist clowns are: cartoonish supervillains, except they're for REAL! Gordon Liddy might have slipped on a banana peel while putting poison in your medicine bottle or garroting you on the street**, but the comedy factor wouldn't make you any less dead. That's the danger of fascist clowns, they lull you into a sense of disbelief; "this cant be real, he can't be serious!" you say, right before you are economically, constitutionally, or physically murdered.

* but wasn't it Dorothy Parker who said that Hitler could have been thwarted at the start if people had only laughed at him? My brain hurtzes.
** actual methods of assassination Liddy was trained to and conspired to do.