This piece is inspired by the artwork above, a parody of the famous Norman Rockwell triple self-portrait. This satire, like the original, speaks to the glamorized self we see in the mirror, demolishing and lightly mocking (respectively) their subjects. The depictions are not truth. They are the stories that people share in order to maintain illusions. And, like all stories, they are dependent on audiences in order to maintain their meaning.
Note first, however, that I am not a politician or a social scientist. Thus, any commentary on the mechanical issues that are devastating our society—namely, a failing educational system, a prison-industrial complex that favors punishment over rehabilitation, and a drug war that overwhelmingly castigates the poorest and most vulnerable citizens—would be purely opinion based. Get enough liquor in me and I’ll share them with you.
That being said, I am a narrative designer who has come to specialize in demographic analysis and story-sharing. I’ve worked with organizations, universities, and nations to help build narratives to embolden people and change lives. I’ve seen how people intertwine their personal stories with those of a larger group, for good and ill effects, as well as how to make sure this remains a conversation without turning into propaganda (more on this in a second, I promise). I’ve worked with people who have had their tongues torn out because they spoke the wrong words to the wrong people.
It is the lessons I learned from them that embolden me to say that we can assuredly beat the Narrative of the Nazi. If we can couple that with the physical means to make sure that Nazis can’t gain a new foothold, we can make that ideology so untenable that all but the barest few crazies remain, so few that they cannot make any meaningful change to the world.
That is the most difficult lesson in all this: as long as humanity remains human, we will never be able to get rid of every fascist. The KKK, the Nazis, the Fascists: the things that drive them are in us all. They are the raging id of humanity made manifest, figures of fear masquerading as the brave. Germany got thrashed at the end of World War II but the rhythms that built into a drumbeat of genocide still pound in every human heart. It is built into our DNA: those ancient humans who feared first, killed second, and asked questions later were those who survived. Their stories became foundational to the human mythos.
We have to unweave those narratives from our culture if we are to get anywhere to undoing this surge of behavior. No reasonable person believes in the tenets of fascism in and of themselves, but the meta-narrative devices remain in our subconscious. Beating a Nazi removes him from the fight. It also simultaneously feeds into the persecution complex that fuels their capital-n Narrative, allowing them to regroup and start again.
Rest assured that fascists require a narrative, or rather, a counter-narrative. It is “us” and “them,” “homeland” and “enemy,” “righteousness” and “evil,” “Glory of the Past” and “Horrors of the Future.” By it’s nature, it is divisive, exclusionary, and false. You’ll see why in a second, but in short, it goes something like this:
Sometime in the past, everything was great. The Divine and Material Worlds joined together in such harmony that there was no real conflict. Everybody knew their place. The rightful rulers ruled and the rightful servers served.
Then something bad happened. A great corruption, or an invasion, or a war gone wrong. There were great heroes who fought a valiant struggle but, in the end, it was doomed to failure. Someone (or some people) betrayed the cause of righteousness; they must have, because our heroes were so amazing that the only way they could lose was via treachery.
All was not lost, however. Despite the wretched somehow gaining the upper hand, we still have the strengths handed down by our forefathers: our bloodline, our greatest literature, our unconquerable spirits, and our ability to see the “reality” behind the veneer of falsehoods that are spewed out by an unquestioning public.
This basic story is the backbone to most radical groups, and it functions similarly to a cult, particularly in how it recruits individuals. Like us all, they are the stars of their own life story. They have hopes, desires, idiosyncrasies, and fears… many, many, many fears, as a matter of fact. They’re not good enough. Someone is out to get them. The world is not right. They won’t be able to make it. They are impotent against the changes in the world. And, usually, there are a good amount of actual undiagnosed mental problems, too.
Note how well this person fits into the role of the traditional… well, I won’t call them “heroes,” but they are their own protagonists, with a desire and a supposed obstacle that prevents them from achieving greatness. There are no jobs, no resources, and no way out. All they want is a steady paycheck and a decent life. This forms the traditional first three steps of the basic narrative structure, wrapped up into a person who has never before considered bedsheets to be a suitable fashion choice.
Steps four (choice) and five (resolution) come via a rallying figure, a leader who promises a lot that speaks to the inadequacies of our protagonist. You are powerful! You have worth! It’s not your fault that you’re messing up! It’s the Jews/Blacks/Women/Gays/Communists/Agitators! I’m going to take a hammer and smash this apparatus! Sign on the dotted line, send a check, and we’ll outfit you with a group of people who are Just! Like! You!
Of course, this is all a bunch of hokum. These leaders might be true believers but, somehow, it alllll comes down to power and money for a few and a lot of sweeping floors for the rest. The stuff they offer—validation, individuality, security, a return to glory, a pathway to peace—are all contradictory given what is actually happening. Win back your freedom by joining our group! We need to restore dignity by cracking a few skulls! I’m telling the truth, but don’t go digging too deeply because then you’ll be hoodwinked by their propoganda!
Our protagonist is so desperate for change and so confused by the cognitive dissonance that it all makes sense, of a sort. Yeah, maybe not everything this leader is saying is accurate, but it sounds right! And that’s better than what’s getting force-fed to me on a daily basis.
This is the definition of a counter-narrative, a story that is meant to undermine and divide people so that they’re more easily picked off or subverted. It is self-fulfilling because any time our protagonist is faced with facts or attacked, they can chalk it up to “them” just trying to keep the “good guys” down. It is incredibly dangerous because, in their minds, there is only one true path, and if this is it, then it justifies anything and everything to get me there. Anybody who is against me is wrong. Anybody who is wrong deserves whatever’s coming to them.
This shows why these movements always inevitably sputter out when pushed in the right way. Sure, sometimes they’re able to get into power and dish out a good deal of pain, but it always comes crashing down because the choices they offer aren’t really choices and the resolution can’t possibly exist. Our protagonists are forced to continue to flail in perpetuity because if they ever succeeded and uncovered the truth, they would have to confront the fact that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Many of them understand this, subconsciously, but cannot wrap their minds around the cognitive dissonance. The goal is to topple their ideals before they get enough power to do any lasting damage.
That’s where your narrative answer comes in.
Now, taking aim at the con-men and their claims is typically a solid choice, but it also risks turning them into a martyr. It’s not that it shouldn’t be done—it must, as fascism requires its followers to abrogate their duties or responsibility and assign them to a figure who utilizes them to create violence that instills a fear-based order system. Your story needs to be woven in a way that disarms this narrative so that, when it falls, it doesn’t level any ghosts behind. It must shine the light on the cause, dissuade wafflers from joining in the first place, and welcome the duped back into the fold.
- Shining a Light – Revealing the “cause” for the con artistry that it is. Don’t lie. The weaknesses of a fascist’s claims are self-evident. Show the facts, show a bit of humility when doing it, and show how people can learn the truth. Some people still won’t buy that they’re being conned, even with near universal evidence, but that’s okay because the main job of this is about…
- Dissuading Wafflers from Joining – The actual Nazi Party in the United States is very small. There are more self-avowed alt-righters, but they’re still vastly outnumbered by people who aren’t really fascists but have fascist leanings. There is a tendency to throw everybody like this into the fold. For God’s sake, fight that impulse! You want to shave off support from fascism, not add to its numbers. If you can make the fascists look so bad that nobody wants to align themselves with them, then you’ll be almost–but not entirely–there. That’s because this step also requires…
- Welcoming the Duped Back into the Fold – Accept people once they’ve realized their mistakes, forgive them, and get them the help they need. Not everybody will be able to be saved but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. They turned to fascism because they thought there was no other way. This is untrue. They have worth, even if it is buried under a mound of bull. It is your unfortunate job to clean that up with more than empty platitudes and hand wringing because this individual has forgotten about that part of themselves, the part that makes them a part of humanity. In doing so, you will show that the going is not impossible and that it was the work of your side that helped them to realize it. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you destroy your enemies when you turn them into friends.
All three of these are tied into the foundational meta-step in every narrative: it needs to be CONSISTENT. Bruce Wayne has the tech, the money, and the training to beat the bad guys, but his internal code prevents him subsuming into the corruption he fights. Star Trek has a lot of people in silly makeup traipsing around the universe in ways that shatter the laws of physics, but at its heart, it’s always a story about our struggles to create a better world that mirror our own inner struggle between light and dark. Transformers, shockingly, actually transform! Look to the failures in each of these franchises and you’ll see that they broke these fundamental rules.
The fundamental rules of this narrative revolve around the truth. Truth has nothing to fear from the facts. Fascists swaddle themselves in falsehoods in a way that shields them from the outside world. The real good guys, on the other hand, cannot lie. When we lie about ourselves and others and the world, we help service the counter-narrative that fosters fascism. We must face hard truths. We must make hard decisions. We must tell it like it is and be ready to hear it told back to us.
To do that, we have to UNDERSTAND ourselves and those who disagree. When I say understanding, I don’t mean that any form of fascism deserves respect and an equal seat at the table. All facets of fascism are antithetical to the basic tenets of humankind, the truth that every individual is worthy of the same dignity and respect as any other. To a fascist, there’s a natural order to those who rule and those who serve, with violence as a necessary tool to get rid of the undesirables, returning humanity to a false paradigm that never really existed. If all war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal, as John Steinbeck wrote, then fascism is the projection of said symptom that propagates the disease.
Nevertheless, we must understand why. Why do people turn to Fascism? Why do people feel disaffected? Why there, why then? Why here, why now? We know how it happened in Germany. In short, you had an intensely patriotic people with a history of war-making who had come under economic threat, then grew tired of political infighting by elites that seemed to care little for the people’s well-being, which allowed a fringe group to gain juuuuuuuust enough popular power to turn their nightmares into realities.
When you’re crafting your narrative, you need to weave the bad narrative into the good. By doing so, you are using the “Fool’s Tongue,” an ancient trick in which supposedly true statements were spoken by an idiotic character in order to undermine them. If you can understand why your audience reacts in a certain way, you can craft pieces that make it untenable to support (NSFW and volume warning) you and fascism.
Remember that no idea is so impregnable that it can withstand honest research and criticism. I reject any claim that debate gives credence to all ideas represented. That premise accepts, a priori, that some people are so stupid that they cannot be trusted to understand the facts themselves. That is literally a foundational tenet of fascism: only certain people can be trusted with the facts and the power that derives from those facts. Understand who you are speaking to and what speaks to them. Some people will never listen, but the only way to get rid of fascists is to get rid of the fascist in them.
This does not mean that fascist ideas are above MOCKERY. None of us are; if we cannot laugh at ourselves, we run the risk of turning the witless buffoons we claim to be arguing against. We need to show how ridiculous we all are. In so doing, we create a welcoming atmosphere. I made fun of you and me. Nobody is above reproach. No topic is too taboo when handled in the right way. We need to treat serious subjects with serious attitudes, but we must also be willing to poke fun at the idea that the battle flag of a treasonous nation that lost a war defending antiquated economics is supposed to somehow showcase pride.
This has happened before. Superman helped fight the KKK by exposing the ridiculousness of their secret society. Archie Bunker allowed for us to externalize the racist figure in our family (and in ourselves) so that we could see how ridiculous such a person was. Homer Simpson has mocked the average American father for nearly thirty years now, and is it a coincidence that as he has dealt with racism, immigration, and gay marriage, that young fans of the show have become more tolerant?
This also removes the mystique of the fascist group. Fascists prey on our fears, on the insecure, and on the weak by positioning themselves as some monolithic group that is everywhere and nowhere, fueled by an arcane understanding of the world that empowers their control. By removing the shroud from them, we not only mock their eccentricities but show that we are unafraid. Your order is not mystical. In fact, it is more than a little silly.
When people talk back to you, when they are able to hold a CONVERSATION, they will see that yeah, okay, we’re mocking them just as much as we’re mocking ourselves but the real target is the lies they’ve been fed. You will be speaking with them, building a conversation on social media and in internet media that can transform their thought process. There’s a reason that reddit AMAs and CMV’s are so powerful and popular: people are held accountable and challenged, in the process (when not running off the rails) having everyone come away a little wiser or, at least, that they tried to understand the other side and maybe they aren’t so bad after all.
This is the difference between propaganda and population activation. Propaganda must be a one-way street: there is only one truth, and you’re not allowed to comment, amend, edit, criticize, or do anything but accept. Population activation is built on two-way communication between creator and audience, between creator and creator, between audience member and audience member. They create the narrative together, which requires persistence, understanding, compromise, a thick skin, and an unwillingness to give up.
Time and again, studies have shown that when people talk, people change. The boogeyman is not a boogeyman after all. The stuff that the Grand Wizard has been peddling is snake oil. We are all just human beings, with strengths and dignity, frailties and failures.
The important difference here is to separate the individual from their ideas. Their ideas are stupid; they are not. They have been duped. They have been lied to. Their leaders have suckered them into a long-con to line their pockets with ill-gotten wealth. Their entire creation myth is just that: a myth. It never happened. When Mel Brooks mocks the Nazis, he’s not making light of the holocaust, its victims, or its perpetrators. He is mocking the very idea of Nazism in the first place. The idea is odd. It’s not normal.
What is NORMAL, though? Well, normal is strength. From the data Starlight Runner has gathered in nearly two decades of work, we have found that depictions of normalcy are far more effective at evoking change in the populace than exceptionalism. When people see the “normal” everyday struggles of being a young single mom, people stop viewing teen pregnancy as aspirational. When people witness exceptionalism, however, they internalize the idea that these moments are literally the exception rather than the norm. In short, expectations can create reality.
Everyone wants to be normal, except in the ways in which we are strong. We want to be the best pitcher, the best chef, the best lover. But when it comes to our everyday pursuits, the things that are just a part of who we are, we want comfort to know that we’re not alone. There are others like us. It’s the single greatest strength of fascism: your ideas are normal and you are not alone.
Their ideas are not normal, but they are—indeed—not alone. We all have fears. We all get angry. We all hold prejudices. We all make bad decisions and get duped. Studies have found that “simple and short periods of ostracism have been found to produce significant increases to self-reported levels of anger and sadness… these effects have been found even when the participant is ostracized by out-group members, when the out-group member is identified as a despised person such as someone in the Ku Klux Klan, when they know the source of ostracism is just a computer, and even when being ostracized means they will be financially rewarded and being included would incur a financial cost.”
That is, even though we want to be normal, we reject it when we ourselves are ignored, mocked, and left alone. The goal of your narrative, then, must be to bring about UNIFICATION. Fascism is, sadly, a part of our reality. So too is the person who believes in it… but unlike fascism, these people can have a part in something far greater if they can give up their prejudices. Misdeeds cannot go unpunished but bad thoughts need to be corrected and then forgiven.
I am not saying that this is easy, just that it is necessary. Authoritarianism thrives in disunity. Almost every government of that nature in history has sowed dissent in the opposition and allowed them to eat themselves before descending on the remnant. We who agree on the end but not on the means to get there wind up exhausting ourselves while those who hate both our means and our end prepare for war.
This is the mechanism that allow radicals to take power from the majority (the fasces, a bundle of sticks, is a physical analogy and, paradoxically, remedy to this: one stick breaks, but many do not). It creates an easy narrative with easy conflict: us-them, right-wrong. Nazis welcome violence not just because there are bloodthirsty stooges among them, but because it reinforces their viewpoints inside their group, among those intrigued, and by getting discourse into one arena where they stand out—a brawl—and out of another where they fail every time—intellectualism. Fascists fight to undermine education because the educated empathize more and realize just how similar we all really are. Fascist ideologies fester when left alone but wither when the individuals that hold them are shown they are not, actually, alone after all.
E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one—represents the best ideas of the United States. It doesn’t speak to our foundations in slavery, in puritanical thinking, in distrust of the society, in its repression and genocide. It speaks to the idea that all of us are better not in spite of our differences but because of them. We are many individuals from many backgrounds with many ideas, but we are one people.
That means we must acknowledge our own complicity, but where and when appropriate. It does no good to gloss over what we’ve done wrong or to dwell forever on our failures. We cannot forget the horrors of our past and we cannot be afraid of our future. The latest generation of Americans is the most loving, diverse, educated, and actuated generation in all of history.
They are also the most likely group to be groomed by fascists. Young people are moldable. They crave attention. They want to know. They are desperate to be a part of a group. The fascists will give them a narrative that is riddled with contradictory, close-minded, humorless, one-sided division.
Your narrative, on the other hand, will:
- Show Consistency
- Be Built on a Foundation of Understanding
- Will Show Humor, Both in Targets and of Yourself
- Invite Audiences to Speak Back and Add
- Showcase the Normality of Goodness
- Unify Anyone Who Wants to Participate
You will be giving your young protagonists the narrative tools they need to confront, mock, and understand fascism. Your young protagonists will then be able to share these tools in a self-replicating fashion because, via their native capabilities in online media, they can reach thousands of people faster than we can reach ten. Your young protagonists will, with the help of people who are actually trying to dismantle the physical manifestations of our past, be able to put that narrative into action, welcoming and challenging themselves and everyone else to do more.
Except they won’t just be young protagonists anymore. They will be young heroes.
I know this piece will ruffle some feathers. Many hold the opinion that even engaging with fascists above physical violence is unacceptable and dangerous. I obviously disagree, and if you’d like to discuss, please do so, though I’d prefer if you’d email me rather than discuss 140 characters at a time.