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In Nazi ideology, the Fuhrer is the living embodiment of the people’s community (volksgemeinschaft); he is the manifestation of the people’s will, and thus ties the entire presentation and ideological system (weltanschauung) together as one cohesive whole. Yet, the “Fuhrer principle” is not wholly explanatory of Nazism, nor should it be taken to be [1]. Rituals, symbols, and their repetition were crucial in the presentation and maintenance of Nazism as an ideological hegemon. This much is obvious – one cannot escape the prevalence of grand illustrations of Nazi spectacles in Western popular media, given the photos of the momentous Nuremberg rallies and others, especially seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. They have been seared in the public mind, but in doing so, they have also been mostly emptied of historical context.

Nazism would not have been as successful as it was had there not been historical precedent, and this continuity is crucial to demarcate because it places us squarely in the minds of the German spectator, and grants us an understanding of the allure behind the presentation. Thus, the purpose of this essay is twofold – for one, it aims to further affirm the claims that ritual was crucial to the maintenance of weltanschauung and relied on it; and secondly, I will demonstrate that Nazi rituals harkened back to forms of previous mass public expressions (Catholic, Protestant, Teutonic, and otherwise) which were emptied of their prior substance and used for other ideological ends, namely that of the Nazi state. These rituals took the form of religion in what German legal scholar Herman Heller pithily called “Catholicism without Christianity” [2]. Nazism transformed religion’s rituals and politically utilized it by “[obscuring its] transcendence by means of an ever-larger infusion of ritual” [3]. I hope to show how ritual and historical continuity was one of the central spectral features of the weltanschauung, and was thus integral to its legitimacy.

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I. The Main Components of the Nazi Mythos

A dominant group demands a mythos for it be seen as historically legitimate. One cannot discuss political rituals, or any tradition, without discussing their mythologized origins. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, “[invented traditions] are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition” [4]. This type of historical “play” – the usage of history for ideological ends – necessitates a myth and presentation in order for it to be viewed as a consistent narrative by its viewers. The Nazis were able to do so by creating a “holy history,” sanctifying their politics to works towards their mythologized ends [5].

The religious amenities of fascism are well-documented. Academic Paul Mazgaj writes:

Translating the ancient religious topos of death and redemption into a secular myth of national decadence and renewal, fascists were able to project an incredible dynamism, sense that a new society would soon rise from the ashes of the dying one [6].

Several authors had commented on the relationship between mythology and politics more generally. Emilio Gentile theorized about the sacralization of politics as one involving a political liturgy, an elect community, and a specified code of ethics [7]. Karen Anderson has written of the necessity of “sacrifice, liturgy, and ritual” in mythology [8]. Stanley Stowers in his piece The Concepts of ‘Religion,’ ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism asks us a pressing question – “did National Socialism break down the wall that modernity had recently erected between the secular domain of politics and the domain of religion?” [9]. Perhaps a glimpse of the answer can be found in a quotation from the National sozialistishe Monatshefte in its September, 1938 issue:

It is said that the body belongs to the state, and the soul to the Church or God. This is no longer the case. The whole man, body and soul, belongs to the German nation and to the German state. The latter has also taken all matters of faith under its own control [10].

This supposed “breakdown between politics and religion” must first be understood through the basis of Nazi ideology – the myth.

The Nazi mythos can be broken up into four main mythological “clusters.” Firstly, there is the myth of the leader or messiah represented through the Adolf Hitler whose goal is to unite and lead the volk towards historical salvation. Secondly, there are the people themselves (volksgemeinschaft), who form a community united all under the domain of the Fuhrer. Third is the concept of degeneracy or the myth of culturally alien things which pose a threat to the volk. Nazism depended on moral dualism, which several scholars such as Hamilton Twombly Burden have dubbed “Manichean,” which rests on the premise that all things fall on one of two sides of the dividing line – that which is “good or bad, right or wrong, or us or not of us” [11]. The Manichean evil in this scheme then, for Nazism, is the Jew who represents “the war of life or death” but extends even greater to include everything that is assumed non-German including socialists, Roma people, the disabled, and Slavs [12]. Fourth and last is salvation or rebirth which scholar Rodger Griffin has called “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” taken from the Greek word palingenesis meaning “becoming again” [13]. For Nazism, this rebirth or salvation would come as a cataclysmic end during which all cases of prior anomie, degeneracy, and moral crises would be resolved through the Fuhrer. This is Nazi salvation history (heilsgeschichte), sacralized politics for this world and not the next, which affirmed the reality of their cause; they thus painted reality in this mythos and saw themselves as Germany’s proper eternal return. In doing so, they also created the conditions with which to justify their political ascension.

II. The Necessity of Ritual

Public rituals in Nazi ideology served to create internal consensus where the spectacle would work as a mass suggestion. This was done through huge parties and grandiose architectural feats. And Hitler himself knew the allure of these spectacles. Simon Taylor in Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism brilliantly connects these grandstanding rituals to Hitler’s own words, quoting him writing after a socialist rally in Berlin just after WW1:

A sea of red flags, red scarves, and red flowers gave to this demonstration, in which an estimated 120,000 took part, an aspect that was gigantic from the purely external point of view. I myself could feel and understand how easily the man of the people succumbs to the suggestive magic of a spectacle so grandiose in effect [14].

The Nazi leadership understood the power of these performances. The rituals therefore accomplished a crucial role in the ideological framework of Nazism – it tangibly created the volksgemeinschaft which could be felt and seen, and hence “allowed for mechanisms of mass suggestion [to] operate” [15]. Spaces were thus architecturally designed to concentrate the crowd’s attention on the centerpiece: the Fuhrer or the holy symbol representing him [16]. Such fixtures were previously only seldom used for anything other than holy presentations. Architect Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom) drew on this historical continuity sharply, and Goebbels even spoke of the “need to emulate the mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church at party rallies” [17]. It is through these spectacles that the Nazis were able to stage-manage the psychological process of identification by using grandiosity and rituals to affirm their ideology’s superiority against the Manichean evil they were fighting against.

III. The Nazification of Tradition and Ritual

Simon Taylor identifies three types of National Socialist celebrations present in various forms from 1919 to 1945: (1) celebration of the National Socialist Year (Jahreslauf), (2) morning celebrations (Morgenfeiern), and (3) life celebrations (Lebensfeiern) [18]. Celebrations marking the National Socialist calendar year were most common and these included the Founding of the Party Programme (February 24th), the Fuhrer’s birthday (April 20th), and the commemoration of the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (November 9th)[19]. Taylor also mentions other holidays which were previously Christian or labor holidays, but were re-imagined for Nazi purposes such as Christmas and Labor Day. The Nazi Party would use these public holidays to organize support as scholar Barry Stephenson notes in one such example in 1933 when the party rallied in Wittenberg’s Marketplace on the Protestant holiday of Reformation Day, October 31st [20]. In other such example of historical rewriting, the Nazi Party transformed Remembrance Day on March 16th, a day meant to mourn the fallen of World War One, to a day of pride and triumph where “the swastika flag was no longer to be lowered to half-mast, but flown proudly… as a symbol of Germany’s reawakened faith and pride” [21]. Taylor notes that many other holidays suffered the same fate including “Easter, Mother’s Day, Whitsun, [and] the Harvest Thanksgiving” [22]. These Christian and, in some cases, old pagan Teutonic customs, needed to be revived to counter what they called “Jewish-Marxist materialism” [23]. These state-sanctioned holidays created a cycle of “high holy days” which were meant to resemble religious calendars and signified when the people would carry out their yearly rites.

One particular ritual – the 9th of November – became central to the Nazi myth of palingenesis. It was here that narratives were transformed, connecting the defeat in 1923 to Nazi victory in 1933. The message of the ritual was of rebirth and martyrdom, that the spilling of Nazi blood during that failed coup was a prerequisite to the “historical inevitability” of National Socialism. On the morning of November 9th, 1935, Hitler unveiled the Bloodflag (Blutfahne), the flag carried by the conspirators in 1923. It was stained by the flag of its martyrs and was brought out to consecrate the newly-built Temple of Honor in Munich where the sixteen fallen party members were housed. The Bloodflag was a holy symbol and was thus unveiled only on the 9th of November and at Nuremburg during Reichsparty-day [24]. During its presentation, names of the fallen were read as upwards of thousands assembled party members and Hitler Youth responded “Here!” in unison. In this quasi-religious ceremony, the Fuhrer would symbolically unite the living with the dead – united through blood and honor. As Taylor writes, the Bloodflag was the “essential confirmation of the Nazi mythos” [25] symbolizing the Christian cross with Hitler as its figurehead, consecrated as Christ. If it had not already, Nazism had begun to take on religious signification with the unveiling of the Bloodflag. The flag was a “sanctuary,” the blood of the fallen was “holy,” and the Reich was “eternal” as it was constantly repeated through Nazi rhetoric [26].

In order to further affirm their fight against the Manichean evil, public gatherings were planned to combat presumed “degeneracy.” Book burnings were a staple where texts by Jews, certain intellectuals, and leftists were driven around in carriages through the streets for all to see and then subsequently burned. The ritual was not unprecedented in European history – for they were “reminiscent of both the medieval book burnings of Talmudic and heretical texts as well as the Catholic ceremony of the auto-da-fe” during which heretics were burned alive in a public act of penance [27]. An art exhibit of “degenerate art” was also organized by Adolf Zeigler and the Nazi Party 1937 to present to the German people the values that had previously undermined their society.

IV. Closing

Ritual and presentation were not peripheral to Nazi ideology. In fact, they were central to it. These public spectacles solidified the state’s supreme power, and touched on all facets of the Nazi mythos: the supremacy of the Fuhrer, the people’s community, the historical enemy, and Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Throughout all these spectacles, the fixation remained on the Fuhrer. Whereas such presentations were previously reserved for holiness, Nazism made politics sacrosanct; it reappropriated previously-religious symbols and rituals and emptied them of content, and thus filled them for their own use. And if it were not for this historical precedent, Nazism would have had little momentum. It required these historical parallels – and its party members acknowledged their mythic power, and organized with its help. Thus, although not a religion, Nazism took on religion’s mystical form and broke the barrier between the state and religion. It was a quasi-religious ideology without transcendence, Catholicism without Christ, but to its fervent followers, it was so much alike that they followed and swore its allegiance to it all the same.

***

[1] A succinct explanation of the Fuhrer Principle was said by Rudolf Hess at the end of Triumph of the Will: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.”
[2] Max Ascoli, Arthur Feiler, Fascism for Whom? (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938), 281.
[3] Richard Grunberger, The 12-Year Reich (New York: DeCapo Press, 1971), 72.
[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Terrance Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3.
[5] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. 2007): 9.
[6] Paul Mazgaj, Imagining Fascism: The Cultural Politics of the French Young Right (Cranburby, NJ: Rosemond Publishing, 2007), 30.
[7] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 16.
[8] Karen Armstong, A Short History of Myth (New York: Cannongate, 2006), 2-9.
[9] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 10.
[10] Otto of Austria, “Christianity and National-Socialism,” World Affairs, Vol. 105, No. 2 (June 1942): 76.
[11] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” Ex Post Facto, Volume XIX (2010): 47.
[12] Wilard Gaylin, Hatred (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2003), 221.
[13] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 40-41.
[14] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec. 1981), 511-512.
[15] Ibid., 512.
[16] Ibid., 513.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 505.
[19] Ibid., 505-506.
[20] Barry Stephenson, Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 10.
[21] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” 506.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 509.
[25] Ibid., 510.
[26] Ibid., 513.
[27] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 53.

The same image can be interpreted a million times over, and differently each time. The interpretation of an image is dependent on the spectator, whose understanding is derived from ideology. Thus, ideology is that which guides individuals into particular social niches and associations — it is ideology which gives an image, which intrinsically has no meaning, symbolic meaning.

Firstly, we should define our most important term which is ideology. In Marx’s Capital, he defined it simplest he could, with an aphorism: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). Philosopher Slavoj Zizek elaborates on this in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology: 

The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself (Zizek, 33). 

Ideology is all around us. We are constantly making associations without realizing it because we have been inculcated in a particular historical context. Ideology is especially relevant in Western society since our desires are constantly being shaped in an effort to further consumption.

Consumption derives its power through subliminal messages. It exerts power by transcending itself from simply being an action to being representative of worth. Economist Thorstein Veblen gave this a name — “conspicuous consumption.” Purchasing an expensive car, to give one example, is not merely an act in and of itself. It also represents a certain social rank to the individual and those around you. Therefore, an act of consuming has two dimensions to it. One is the actual use-value of the commodity to the individual. The second is what the commodity culturally symbolizes and it says about the individual to the observer. The focus on the commodity, and the creation of symbols, was pivotal in rise of mass-consumerist society in the 20th century. It shifted the West from a need-based economy to a desire-based economy.

It is no surprise that symbolism differs in each socioeconomic class, not just for consumption, but for virtually everything that is perceived. The following poll is from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

Museum Questionaire

I think this chart clearly makes the case that human beings derives their associations from perceived usefulness. For a laboring manual worker, the association is naturally that which is most familiar — a church. A church is most dear to them and resembles a large museum in form. For an upper-class individual which possesses the free time to tend to such things, a museum is a thing-in-itself. It is simply a museum, which is why near 20% of these individuals chose “none of these” as their response.

Without usefulness and the free time (or individual interest) to explore certain areas, objects and ideas are dealt conveniently as pure associations. Marketing plays into this ignorance, but we also see this even more evidently in politics. To illustrate this, I’m sure that if you wrote buzzwords like “socialism” and “inequality,” each class of people would have differing associations for that particular word. The fact that many of these associations have replaced the actual definition of the word is frightening and speaks more of the respective economic class which we are all born into rather than personal choice. Sure, there can be choice involved as to how we define words, but to the politically-unconscious laborer, such a choice is relatively meaningless. This is especially dangerous in a time of mass-media and populist politics. Consumerism and politics, coupled with misleading associations, leads to a very unhealthy social situation.

propNationalism works within a unique niche in contemporary society. It is constantly romanticized by its proponents, described as both necessary and natural, despite having to reinvent itself with every new epoch. Nationalism prides itself on its continuity, but it is constantly changing the means with which it defines itself. In a symbolic gesture, nationalism “mediates the past with the future, while providing an effective dimension for the present” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 255). It gives the appearance of historical resemblance in a reality that is actually ever-changing and fluid. The Enlightenment and Romanticist literary movements have played their part in developing national consciousness by describing nationalism as eternal, static, and even “infinite.” Ironically, it is because of the ordinariness of capitalist standardization that nationalism found its sincerest and most passionate supporters. The fact that nationalism rose during a time of emerging economic automation and science is no coincidence – National consciousness had to be created as a means to cope with the turbulent alienation of modernity.

I. Essentialism Is Inseparable from Nationalism

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

The eternal flame is the distinctive marker of national honor. It is used to respect those who died for their homeland, or to venerate political figures of national importance. The “eternal” in this fiery symbol is an all-encompassing depiction of the nation-state; the nation is conceived as immaterial, unique, and timeless by its most fanatical believers and oftentimes heightened to quasi-religious proportions. This line of rhetoric is characteristic of a philosophical position which dates back to Greek Antiquity – essentialism. Essentialists posit that there exists an objective, core quality to a particular person or group that is inherent in their very being. Therefore, essentialism is also an a priori claim on human nature.  This philosophy can take on different forms. It can function within an individualistic framework where attributes are assumed for an individual based on how they can be characterized more generally (race, gender, etc.). Ethno-nationalism derives its power from an essentialist position, arguing that their particular group constitutes a natural identity and one that has a greater historical narrative they are destined to complete. It is the position that “nations are natural, organic, quasi-eternal entities” rather than products of historical forces (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). Essentialist nationalism is thus the position that the individual is second to the community and therefore owes allegiance to the nation.

6a00d83451cdc869e20120a8b4166c970bVirtually all of nationalism functions as essentialist in how it conceives itself. The concept of “the nation” rests on four major ideas that Benedict Anderson in the introduction to his book Imagined Communities outlines. Firstly, the nation is imagined. It is imagined because, although conceiving of themselves as a group, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (Anderson, 15). Secondly, the nation is limited. Each national group has finite boundaries with which it defines itself. Anderson makes an effort to clarify this distinction by arguing that “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation…” (Anderson, 16). In other words, nationalism is by its very design limited in scope; Nationalists does not seek the expansion of all people within its borders. Instead, they value most those that culturally qualify as their own.  Thirdly, moving forward, the nation is sovereign. Nationalism requires a state to enforce itself or else it falls into obscurity, which is why the “nation” and “state” are so deeply intertwined. And finally, fourthly, the nation is a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 16). It is why individuals die for their nation – they conceive of themselves as inseparable from it and are therefore willing to be slaughtered for the state. Such actions, although sometimes full of valor, are motivated by imagination.

Ironically, the more passionate nationalism is, the more it discredits itself as an ideology by turning to violent means to achieve an imagined vision. As Josep Llobera writes, “in the long run, the history of Western Europe is the history of the qualified failure of the so called nation-state” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). However, despite the atrocities committed in its name, nationalism relentlessly survives with each decade. Nations amass popular credibility and power through two means – by creating the “Other” and the myth. In order for nationalism to take root, it must first differentiate itself from other groups or individuals that are unlike it. Commonalities are formed within a particular group – be it cultural, religious, or political – and eventually synthesized, popularized, and normalized and made natural in contrast to the “Other.”

II. The Creation of the “Other”

In order for an ethno-national state to affirm itself, it first has to make clear what it is not. This process of differentiation is crucial in the development of nationalism since it distinguishes the “nation” from those that are outside it, and thus creates an imagined community for its people to follow. However, imagined communities are not created in a vacuum; there must be particular historical forces at play in order for a group to conceive of themselves, collectively, with one national identity. Take the case of Catalan nationalism – it emerged as a result of regional repression, an ineffective Spanish state, industrialization, romantic literature, and a strong Catholic base (Tonkin et. all 250, 251, 252). The final differentiating factor is, ultimately, language which is arguably “the symbol and the lively expression of the personality of [the] people” (Conversi, 55). Catalan nationalism and its history provide us with many sources on how the intelligentsia made an effort to differentiate Catalans from other Spaniards. The dichotomy of being “Catalan” and “not-Catalan” is an important one, since the whole purpose of its nationalist project was to create an “irrefutable and indestructible Catalan personality” (Conversi, 55). Thus, the creation of Catalan nationalism involved the creation of core values and language as a means to differentiate Catalan as a legitimate nationality. And such was not just the case in Catalonia, but for all nationalist movements that sought validity in the post-Enlightenment era.

III. The Myth of Nationalism

The creation of nationalist myths goes hand-in-hand with differentiating the nation from others. The myth functions as a unique starting point for national consciousness – it inspires and creates a common story of origin for all the people in its supposed jurisdiction. The need for myths is apparent in virtually all nationalist movements. For Croatians, they found national solidarity by identifying themselves as the cultural ancestors of the historic Illyrians who lived in the Balkans around 5th century B.C. In another case, the Scottish Highlands created their own nationalist myth by distinguishing themselves from Irish culture. As Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in The Invention of Tradition:

It occurred in three stages. First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original, and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by historic Lowland Scotland… (Hobsbawm, 16).

scot5In an effort to forge a national identity, the Scottish intelligentsia told stories of Scotts resisting Roman armies, called Irish-influenced ballads their own, and even popularized their own non-Irish traditional garb by the 18th century (Hobsbawm, 17, 19). This was done all in efforts to differentiate themselves from Ireland, who they felt culturally overshadowed the Highlands.

The creation of myths is the imaginative potential of nationalist projects. The sheer literary talent of piecing together a coherent (although fictitious) narrative was a product of 18th century Romanticism. Eventually, these tales became ingrained in the culture from which they sprung; the myths began to be taken as true, as if they had a life of their own. These stories’ main purpose was to establish a grander narrative which grounds the community in core values and common history. Thus, myths are a necessary component of any nationalist project – they reinvigorate a community to stand on its own, distinguishes them as unique, and ultimately gives them a reason to take up arms to defend their imagined history.

IV. Inventing Traditions

Thus far, we have discussed the steady progression of nationalist development. First, it begins by taking an essentialist position on a group’s origin. From here, differentiation begins by defining the particular group separate from the “Other.” It is then that the creation of “myths” arises in order to justify collective consciousness and action.  Once a national identity is established, it becomes the responsibility of the state and/or the people to maintain it.

Structures and codes of behavior are usually maintained through invented traditions, by using repetition and appealing to continuity with the past.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines this phenomenon in the opening pages of The Invention of Tradition:

‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm, 1).

Invented traditions function as the maintainers of state power. They are constructed with the intent of making the custom appear “historic” or “natural.” Such was the case for the British Monarchy, which was forced to reinvent itself in the late 19th century amidst an educated, growing middle-class. However, this process was not easy and required many failures on part of the ruling class to perfect its rituals. David Cannadine in chapter four of The Invention of Tradition writes, “For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco” (Hobsbawm, 117). This was because royal ceremonies in Great Britain before the mid-19th century were historically done behind closed doors, rather than as public spectacles (Hobsbawm, 116). With the rise of liberalism, the British monarchy had to create a ceremonial tradition that would quell the public’s animosity towards the Crown. They exacted it to a science – appealing to tradition, populism, and the myth of their necessity as an institution. Soon, the British royal family became the living embodiment of national pride, whose “traditions” live on to this day.

However, when a hegemonic imperialist power invents traditions, these changes have ramifications far outside its nationalist borders. The British Empire also imposed these traditions on its colonies, in an effort to naturalize their exploitation and justify their expansionism. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the British monarchy’s symbolic power, starting in the late 19th century, was directly around the time of it colonizing Africa. The same process of “inventing tradition” would be applied to Africa to make them submissive to Anglo-Saxon power. Terence Ranger writes in chapter 6 of The Invention of Tradition:

But serviceable as the monarchial ideology was to the British, it was not enough to provide the theory or justify the structures of colonial governance on the spot. Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans (Hobsbawm, 212).

A hierarchy was enforced in Africa which placed “white” as the ideal amongst the people living there. The watchful eye of Anglo-Saxon officials became symbolic of the African peoples’ position in relation to British power and was justified through appeals to nature and history. With this also came justifications from Protestant theology – the mantra was that it was the white man’s burden that the British have taken upon themselves, out of benevolence, just to help these people succeed. This, however, could not be farther from the truth.

A British ceremony commemorating Ado’s Kingdom assimilation into greater British Nigeria [1897 – 1899]. It was through these rituals that the British empire created traditions and assumed dominance. They did it by creating a spectacle.

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British imperial power expanded its power by forcing groups to assimilate into their empire with the threat of force. In this photo, British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian representatives.

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The British Royalty, starting in the late 19th century, began to rely on aesthetics and ritual to enforce their necessity. In an age of growing democratization, the royalty needed to stay relevant by making each of their actions a symbolic event. The coronation stood, above all else, a symbolic representation of the passing of imperial power. The above photo is a postcard meant to endorse national pride from 1911.

are-we-afraid-no

“Are We Afraid? No!” is a jingoistic British postcard from WW1. The five pups represent the best of Britain’s colonial territories (i.e. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa). The exact year of the postcard is unknown.

poster

This is a french poster by the Mouvement Anti-Apartheid (also known as the Campagne Anti-OutSpan or C.O.A). The group was founded in 1975 and supported the African National Congress and the struggle against apartheid. This was part of its first campaign to boycott Outspan oranges from South Africa in an attempt to destroy the Western hegemony in Africa.

The British Crown is an especially relevant example of invented traditions. Because its influence was so widespread, Anglo-Saxon culture permeates and invents itself as “natural” even to this day. Still, Great Britain aside, virtually all nationalist state projects appeal to a type of invented tradition to maintain itself and make its institutions seem “natural” – be it the caste system in India, or the romanticizing of the Founding Fathers in the United States, or even the appeal to the Roman Empire in fascist Italy under the rule of Mussolini. All of these invented traditions appeal to supposed “historical continuity” and attempt to make a narrative to justify its institutional power. Invented traditions are the means with which nationalism maintains itself as relevant and necessary with each passing generation.

V. Popularizing the Nation

The spread of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its invented traditions. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities outlines a few historical patterns which explains how virtually all nationalist movements popularized themselves. Much of it has to do with “print capitalism,” which was the commodification and mass-production of texts. It ultimately led to a codified language, a “national” language, and extinguished any dialects that previously existed locally. The rise of print capitalism was a steady process, but it eventually grew to encapsulate every aspect of life. Anderson notes, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500… if manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (Anderson, 37). In turn, the print expansion also brought with it a level of greater community, one which extended far beyond kinship and familial ties. It molded a type of national consciousness, a collective identity, by standardizing the means of communication. Therefore, the birth of nationalism can very much be associated with the birth of capitalism and their development is intertwined.

Far beyond print capitalism, other historical factors merged to further solidify nationalism in public consciousness. The spread of the newspaper connected previously unrelated social phenomenon into an implicitly greater narrative, which eventually led to nationalism. Anderson writes:

In this way, the newspaper… quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged (Anderson, 62).

Along with the newspaper, the homogenization of time with the steady adoption of the Gregorian calendar created “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time” which fits nicely into nationalist narratives of continuity. All of these factors – propagated through print capitalism – led to a kind of philological revolution, while also creating a common measurement of time, which allowed for the birth of the collective consciousness that would become nationalism.

VI. Conclusion and Final Remarks

Nationalism derives its prowess from essentialism, myths, and differentiation. It popularizes itself through print, through national language, and through common narratives for the future. And finally, it cements its dominance through repetition and invented traditions. The nuances of how nations individually created their sense of pride are invariably unique, mostly due to differences in relative power, but the general way nationalism is conceived is virtually the same in every historical situation.

Although nationalism is derived from invented traditions and mythological imagination, this does not delegitimize its potential as a political force. Nationalism has proved to be one of the most dynamic phenomena in history, constantly re-inventing itself with each generation. Although as a rule, nationalism is an imaginative community, it has its uses in fighting hegemonic power and re-vitalizing exploited peoples. As Stuart Hall writes in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: “I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically… who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization” (King, 53). It for this reason that nationalism cannot be discarded purely on the basis of being imaginative – it has the potential to be a necessary counter to dominant power, and has revitalized marginalized people throughout the world, especially in the post-colonial era. As a means, nationalism is a sound anti-imperialist platform, but it still fails to provide an end. The historic end-goal of nationalism is the victory of the particular nation. What this end entails is potentially open to reactionary violence, and even political manipulation, which has been the case for the much of modern history. Nationalism breeds competition; It may function as a means to liberate a group, but it fails to provide a proper end.

***

– Tonkin, Elizabeth. McDonald, Maryon. Chapman, Malcolm. History and Ethnicity. Routledge, 1989. New York. pp. 247 – 261. Print.

– Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso Books, 1983. London. Print.

– Conversi, Daniele. Ethics and Racial Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. Routledge, 1990. pp. 50 – 70. Print.

– Hobsbawm, Eric. Ranger, Terrance. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983. New York. Print.

–  King, Anthony D. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Minneapolis. Print.

Firstly, let me tell you what it does not mean.

It doesn’t signify a position that is at odds with a peaceful globalized world. It is not a luddite position against the stroke of history that is moving more and more towards interconnected communities through technology, innovation, and jurisprudence. If anything, this development is welcomed as a means of social advancement. We, anti-globalization advocates, aim at establishing transparent international bodies of people with institutions that breathe human rights, diversity, and democratic principles.

The real reason for concern is that modern markets are serving as an obstacle to such ends. The neoliberal doctrine of the past three decades has preached unity through deception. Now, spheres of influence have emerged that hark back to classical colonial relationships; the First World provides the capital, while the rest must labor. This leaves the Third World in a constant state of dependency. The mantra of benevolent “Westernization” is used as rallying call for economic expansion as age-old cultures are dismantled and replaced with chaos and violence. Plagued with the vestiges of colonialism, artificial lines have been economically reinforced in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere that have worked to heighten tensions. Blood oftentimes spills into the streets as sectarian violence pervades all aspects of post-colonial life while we live in luxury.

An iron boot has been placed on the necks of peoples outside the Western World — and the response from Western circles has been “this is for your own benefit.” Mainstream economists, along the likes of Paul Krugman and others, cite the “measurable improvement” despite these horrible conditions as a justification of economic slavery.

We argue this is wrong.

Therefore, anti-globalization is a position that seeks to break this illusion and expose the horror that is within, rather than give market expansion a justification that is both morally reprehensible and dismissive of the torturous plight incurred on Third World laborers. We, anti-globalization advocates, are not opposed to a global community of interconnected ideas and common interest — we accept this with open arms. However, an unsustainable world community of hierarchy and coercion is something that cannot be tolerated through any means.

In contemporary society, “whiteness” is more than a category of pigmented skin. It is a social construct, an advantageous societal badge, a cultural phenomenon — an implicit privilege ingrained in the Western psyche. Likewise, it has connotations that permeate culture, especially those of us who are part of the American variant. The United States has, arguably, experienced the most racial upheaval of any nation in its brief history as a republic. Therefore, it is easy to see the remnants of a past white-supremacist society still festering, albeit not as explicitly as it once was. Now, the issues are implicit rather than explicit, covert rather than overt — they poison our culture as hidden systemic issues, inculcated in the American experience, rather than with symbolic elements that we tend to associate racism with (i.e. the Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow, etc). Perhaps this poses a greater problem than ever before, since many white Americans have washed their hands clean of the matter after the granting of legal rights in the 1960s. Before such events, racism was in full-view and exposed by movements calling for its destruction during the Civil Rights era and prior. Sadly, these mass-movements have now largely disappeared, since they were mostly in conjunction with Vietnam anti-war protests, and they have escaped the public eye, despite the same problems still persisting.

The reasons for racial complexes are, from my understanding, directly linked to an understanding of class and distributions of affluence. Any hegemonic group, be it cultural or racial, is granted its creation and subsequent dominance by controlling capital and concentrating power. White elitism was a direct product of such concentrations. During the time of the slave power, power was granted to rich white slave-owners by the state. The relationship shifted with the end of the “plantation elites” and the development of racist capitalism in the South, but the dichotomy of oppressor-oppressed in the black experience was little changed. They were barred from many employment opportunities and promptly stripped of political rights after the establishment of Jim Crow once the Union troops left the former Confederate states with the sham of a compromise in 1877.

Convict leasing was actively used in the building of railroads in the South.

In relation to class, it’s quite clear how Jim Crow acquired its luster among white working Americans living in the South. Although their wages were low, their conditions horrid, and their hours long — at least they were white. They found a racial scapegoat. Thus, white capitalists justified their expropriation through a racial lens and trapped freemen in contracts that essentially re-instated elements of slavery, with convict leasing that sold “criminals” to private parties for their bidding. Racism in the south functioned as a buffer to prevent conflict aimed at industrialists. It created a rift between laborers, deviating their attention from inequality and subsequent efforts at unionization.

The issue with class disparity is that it creates the illusion of superiority. The hegemonic status of certain groups corresponds with inequities in wealth; when a group of individuals (i.e. whites, Protestants, etc.) are mostly congregated to one rung of the social ladder, it grants them a higher worth. Rather than attribute their privilege to the lottery of birth, they psychologically justify their position with some innate characteristic — be it race, religion (which is oftentimes taken as birthright), or ethnicity. With centuries of rule by white moneyed interests in the United States, it seems likely that the racist undertones of contemporary society began with class inequality. Therefore, class disparities preceded racist justifications, rather than vice-verse, through the expansion of markets by imperialist forces and expansionism.

In contemporary American society, these same cards are at play, although the deck has been shuffled a bit. The use of “code language” fills the right-wing political arena, which still caters to affluence and power as it always did. The last election of 2012 perhaps signified the last potential “hoorah” for white America — what pundit Bill O’Reilly calls “the real America” — in continuing the hegemony that was once fully enjoyed. The issue is the fact that many white Americans, particularly those in conservative circles, are supposedly “outraged” by the government’s catering to minorities. Some go as far as calling it discriminatory, or reverse-racism, against whites. The severe delusion of these reactionary whites is that they see their marginal decrease in privilege as under-privilege.  In retrospect, opportunities are merely equalizing (slowly), not absurdly flipping inversely from white to black. This white anger manifested itself in the past election, with the white vote rallying over Romney and the South vehemently against President Obama. To put it simply, racial politics are at play once again, despite the political right’s insistence that their criticisms are based purely on some disingenuous merited assessment.

Hence, given its elaborate history, privilege is an absurdly difficult topic to wrestle with due to it potentially being “offensive.” Some political commentators have wrongly grown wary of initiating such discussions and insist we live in a “post-racial” society. They believe firmly that if we ignore the race issue, it will simply disappear. Despite their, perhaps, benevolent intentions on the surface, this exasperates the problem rather than curing it. Yes, granted, I would thoroughly like to live in a post-racial society — but, point being, we don’t. Thereby, analyses in racial relations are still crucial in assessing current conditions because we, sadly, still live in a racist society. You can deny such claims, but you are under a grave misapprehension by personally muting the cries of racial injustice in contemporary American society. Out of ethical respect, we should listen and actively take note.

***

Race, Class, and “Whiteness Theory”

Recently, I stumbled upon a lecture given by cultural historian Roman Krznaric — whose link can be found here — arguing for an new approach to individual empowerment. Rather than cater to the old psychiatric methodologies (i.e. introspective therapy), the 21st century should adopt a new, more radical, approach in solving individual crises. He calls this new approach “outrospection” and it rests wholly on empathy and in discovering oneself through the shoes of others. As fascinating as this is, I was particularly struck by his categorization of a different kind of empathy I had not fully considered — collective empathy and how historical tragedies can be explained by its lack thereof.

The Nazi establishment enjoying a performance by the the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whenever we think of the man’s greatest evil, a time when the moral compass was shattered, we immediately point to the atrocities of Nazism and all its collaborators; how were so many individuals persuaded to commit horrors without regard for life? It appears that the proper diagnosis would be a deficiency of empathy — in particular, a deficiency of collective empathy. Despite the fact that mass killings were structurally instituted as policy, what makes the tragedy all the more frightening is that they were done, and popularly supported, by seemingly ‘average’ people. While people were being tortured, others in the German establishment were enjoying themselves.  The disconnect between the excruciating torture perpetrated and the indulgences of the Nazi personnel blatantly points toward a lack of empathy. They outright became numb to the cries of broken families and killed innocence.

The Cathedral of Light, which was the main aesthetic feature of the Nuremberg Rallies.

And so they occupied themselves with aesthetics, gluttony, and all kinds of excess. To think that Heinrich Himmler would go to work daily, nonchalantly sign degrees instituting murder, and then return from work to sweet orchestrated music by Richard Wagner at the Berlin State Opera House is unthinkable. To them, this was routine. And they were also suffering from a grave deficiency of empathy. The German experience during the Third Reich was based on that idea that this was all historical necessity — that any perceived ‘injustice’ (which was oftentimes well-hidden from public view) is inevitable and crucial in maintaining German hegemony and power.  To further solidify this point, giant structures were constructed to show the awe and might of Nazi rule. This became especially prevalent during the Nuremberg Rallies. All of this was tied together delicately by the feeling of German community — a type of pseudo-empathy that only extended as far as the Germans themselves. For blood and soil only, Blut und Boden, as it was called; this is the perverted empathy they were attempting to facilitate, one based solely on ultra-nationalistic pride and collective narcissism.

Likewise, it can be said that every great historical tragedy involved a deprivation of genuine empathy. When the public becomes so alienated from suffering, suffering is allowed to occur forthright. Popular silence becomes a catalyst for horrors, sadly. Although, conversely, empathy itself is responsible for bringing human betterment with each progressive epoch of development. Human rights was built on abolitionism, by bringing slaves’ suffering in full view of the English commoner. Deeply troubled, this consequently lead to the banning of the Slave Trade in 1807 and of slavery in 1833. Similarly, during the height of early industrialization, abusive child labor and horrible working conditions became so horrifying that the public could ignore it no longer. The acted on their empathy, thus proving it had the power to stimulate social, economic, and political change.

However, the 21st century has seemingly been plagued by an absence of empathy. Individuals repeat the same demeaning lines when asked about deplorable sweatshop labor — “it is necessary” or, more ridiculously, “it’s better than them having no job at all.” Individuals experience poverty as a commodified phenomenon, as token commercials begging for donations, rather than as a real perceivable horror. What if individuals were placed in these conditions? What if they were made to experience the toil of Third World production, the losing of limbs just for an article of cheap clothing? Ironically, in a world so interconnected with technology, empathy is fleeting. Perhaps the only proper remedy is to evoke and cultivate, what Roman Krznaric calls, a culture of outrospection.

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

The merging of state and corporate power, commonly called “state monopoly capitalism” by those of us on the Left, has molded itself into creating a complex system of corporate structures. Interconnected in a globalized marketplace, they have set forth a new economic paradigm that infringes on the very liberty of peoples. Domineering and implicitly bureaucratic in its handlings, these international giants, in all their lucrative prowess, very much resemble what I would call ‘miniature states.’ Contextually, I use miniature very sparingly; only in their appearance they are not truly states, but in their real socio-political power they are on par with actual state apparatuses.

The network of corporate structures have become infused into the superstructure of the social strata. Culture, relations, political power, and institutional power have all been influenced by its overreaching grasps.  And at its very heart lies the base, the means of production, which bring mechanization, blandness, and uniformity in its wake which is the staple of corporate development. Now, given all these attributes, can we compare the corporate model to an authentic state one? Statistics reveal a stark parallel.

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart reported its earnings:

  • Revenue: $421,849,000,000 – 3.3% change from 2009
  • Profits: $16,389,000,000 – 14.3% change from 2009

Exxon Mobil, ranked number two:

  • Revenue: $354,674,000,000 – 24.6% change from 2009
  • Profits: $30,460,000,000 – 58.0% change from 2009

Now, as large as these numbers are, let’s look at nominal GDP numbers gathered from the United Nations (2010) in comparison to these revenue numbers [2]. Bear in mind, GDP is the market value of all the final goods and services from a nation for a given year.

  • If we place Walmart’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Norway’s GDP which is $413,056,000,000 and ranked 24th in the world.
  • If we place Exxon Mobil’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Thailand’s GDP which is $318,850,000,000 and ranked 30th in the world.

In essence, Walmart would be the 23rd largest economy in the world, and Exxon Mobil would be 29th, if they were countries.

The fact that corporations possess more moneyed power than most nations is daunting, however we can break it down even further in resemblance to modern countries. Let’s take it, for the time being, that number of individuals employed by a corporation is its supposed “population.”

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart employed 2,100,000 individuals [3]. Thereby, if we were to make Walmart a sovereign entity, it would have a population of over 2 million people and a GDP ranked 23rd in the world. The income inequality in this ‘state?’ — in comparison to its CEO, Mike Duke, to his workers, it’s 1,167 times greater [4]. 

So granted that corporations maintain political power, market power, cultural holds, and employ a sizable amount of individuals to constitute, essentially, a ‘nation’ — would be be appropriate to call these institution under the category of states? States generally function under the guise of expansion, it caters to its interests, and it wishes to expand its influence over its contemporaries. Modern corporate institutions, generally speaking, do the same thing although in the marketplace. They expand their market share, they compete with other firms, and they engage in associations (i.e. “diplomacy”) with other institutions.

Why do we reject government tyranny, but we condone corporate tyranny? Arguably, both are shades of the same tint and both contain hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of organization. The cognitive dissonance of supporting one, while turning a blind eye to the other, is a form of confirmation bias at its very worse — and it only serves to facilitate the bullying institutions that control the all of our relations.

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