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Accidental Fascists: progressive politics and the dilemma of censorship

Sunday, 21 June 2020  | Brendan Byrne

Let me be clear: I hate Fawlty Towers. Indeed, I have loathed it for decades. To this day, I cannot fathom why so many people think it is comedic ‘genius’.

The reason why I hate Fawlty Towers is not because I think it is ‘racist’. On the contrary, I hate Fawlty Towers because I think it is a chilling study in workplace bullying. To my mind, there is nothing funny in the spectacle of an aggressive martinet who humiliates and victimises their co-workers – regardless of whether they happen to be family members or immigrant workers.

Indeed, I suspect that, for many in the hospitality industry, Fawlty Towers reads less like a comedy and more like a documentary.

That said, I do think the decision to pull Fawlty Towers – however briefly – over ‘concerns’ about its portrayal of race relations was deeply misguided. For as long as I have hated Fawlty Towers I have also held the view that the hardest thing about being a social and political progressive – which is how I view myself – is allowing others the same freedom we claim for ourselves.

That includes the freedom to be a fascist.

Which isn’t to say that we allow fascists to ride roughshod over us, that we simply give up and surrender the field to their bigotry and hatred. On the contrary, we resist – and vigorously. But we don’t resist by silencing and banning and prohibiting. We resist by speaking up and speaking out, by arguing and debating and ensuring that every inch of ground the fascists want to occupy is contested and re-occupied.

Because here’s the thing: when we ban and silence and prohibit, we not only allow the fascists to claim victim status, we become fascists ourselves. Because the only way fascism can sustain itself is through the absence of opposition. That is why fascists ban and silence and prohibit: not because anything anyone else might say is ‘offensive’ or ‘obscene’, but simply because it is anti-fascist. And for so long as there is even an ounce of anti-fascism in public discourse, the fascists lose.

Am I saying Fawlty Towers is fascist? Of course not. For all its horribleness, it is just a reflection of a demeaning workplace reality. But what I am saying is that anyone who wants to ban Fawlty Towers on racial grounds is missing the point. Banning Fawlty Towers isn’t going to stop people watching it. It’s only going to give any racists who take any kind of comfort from it – which I frankly find hard to believe – a sense of legitimacy and purpose. Because when you allow people to believe they belong to a persecuted minority – even if the opposite is true – you hand them the moral high ground.

And a sense of rightness and righteousness is a powerful motivator.

The same applies when we have reached the point where broadcasters and streaming services feel the need to pull movies like Gone With The Wind – again, however briefly – because keeping it on their schedules might make them ‘appear racist’. When our response to any form of bigotry is to create an atmosphere of reactive fear, then we have essentially created the atmospherics of fascism.

Because we don’t respond to the depiction of race relations in Gone With The Wind by banning it. Rather, we respond by confronting those issues head on, by squarely facing the realities it depicts and by committing ourselves to not replicating them in our present societies. Gone With The Wind serves as an object lesson in the historical truths about race relations - and their continuing relevance today.

That’s why, to my mind, the brilliant Netflix series Hollywood ultimately fails. For all that makes it wonderful viewing, by depicting a Hollywood that never was – one in which people of colour and LGBTIQ persons could openly be recognised, both in terms of their personal identity and their merits as entertainment professionals – it sanitised, instead of highlighted, the issue of bigotry. For all that the audience ‘gets’ that this is not the ‘real’ Hollywood, we also have that reality obscured, smudged over, hidden away.

For Christians, Jesus serves as the exemplar in resistance. The Gospels tell us that, time and again, he responded to his critics and detractors by meeting them in debate and argument. He didn’t try to overthrow them from their positions of authority, or seek to use his popular support to silence them. Indeed, its was precisely because of their fear of Jesus and his following that the religious authorities of the day tried to silence him.

But that was not Jesus’ way. He didn’t try to silence and prohibit. Rather, he debated and argued and resisted. He used sarcasm and irony and humour and story-telling. He met his opponents in temples and market-places, in wayside inns and on the road. He even went to dinner with them. And the fact that, at the end of the day, his opponents’ only recourse was to try to silence him is indicative of their ultimate failure. Because, however you understand the phrase, Jesus still ‘lives’ today – and his voice still speaks.

It may be that no-one involved in the present protests actively sought for either Gone With The Wind or Fawlty Towers to be pulled from the air. But the very fact that this was deemed necessary indicates that something has gone wrong with the approach adopted by progressive politics. Because when individuals and institutions respond to our words and our protests with fear, they’re not going to listen to us. They might temporarily comply with our demands – but in the long run, they’ll try and undo everything we stand for.

The accidental fascism of censorship is ultimately self-defeating. All those of good will who seek to oppose racism, whatever their political persuasion, must learn this object lesson. And perhaps it’s those of us on the progressive side of politics who need to learn it most of all.

Brendan Byrne is an ordained Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He is presently in congregational ministry in Melbourne, Australia, and is the creator and host of Ergasia: A Podcast of Work, Faith, Theology, and Economics.


Jim Reiher
July 11, 2020, 12:40PM
A brave article. I do find myself agreeing with much of it. I would distinguish between “creating the atmosphere of fascism” and actual fascism. Progressives who want selective censorship are failing in that area, but that is their failure, not their embracing of fascism. There is so much more to fascism than just censoring opponents - and on virtually every other feature if fascism, progressives will be very different (eg: they are not racist; nor homophobic; nor overly nationalistic; nor willing to bring back the death sentence; Not anti trade unions; nor right wing in economic theory; etc).

But relying on censorship is a failure if some progressives.: that is true.

I believe that to not tolerate the intolerant is to imitate that aspect of them.

Thanks for the article.

Jim Reiher.
Gordon Grifiths
July 11, 2020, 6:02PM
You have challenged so clearly the reason why the censorship you spoke of was self defeating. I enjoyed Gone with the Wind as an interesting depiction of life in USA when it happened. A false picture of the ways Negroes were treated would have been wrong representation of history. There are many so-called current programs I always turn off cos I am appalled by them. I could cope with Fawlty Towers but cringed at the way the Spanish servant was treated.
Jon Eastgate
July 17, 2020, 4:12PM
Some interesting thoughts here. This article, like others on the subject, implies that there is a binary question - should we censor, or should we not censor? This doesn't do justice to the question, to my mind. There are some things we should censor, and some things we should not. For instance, we should censor people's attempts to incite violence, as we have with people urging Australian Muslims to commit acts of terror. We should not censor people who criticise our politicians, but we should censor people who suggest that they or their families should be harmed or killed.

Therefore when we read someone suggesting 'there should not be censorship, there should be open debate'. it is essential to read this in the light of the particular issue that they are saying should not be censored. In this case it is racism directed at people of minority races, particularly African-Americans but, in the lead example of Fawlty Towers, Spaniards and Germans.

You then want to know exactly what forms of racism are or aren't acceptable. Personally I love Fawlty Towers and one of the reason it's cringeworthy racism should be borne is that there is no way anyone could possibly consider Basil Fawlty as a role model. This is less the case, say, with Gone with the Wind, where it's heroes simply accept racist arrangements - but it is redeemed because it is a historical artefact not a contemporary production - it illustrates what racism was like. Don't be like this, kids! But I would have thought other forms of racism might be better off censored. I would not like to see, for instance, a revival of the Black and White Minstrel Show, or gollywogs making a comeback as a popular children's toy, or a fresh edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion with introduction outlining how its predictions are coming true in our age. And I would definitely like to see censorship of incitements to lynchings or pogroms.
Yarkov Halik
August 10, 2020, 9:32AM
Jon, I was interested in your remark about the movie, Gone with the Wind, 'where its heroes simply accept racist arrangements - but it is redeemed because it is a historical artefact not a contemporary production - it illustrates what racism was like'. I wonder to what extent works of art can be seen merely as 'historical artefacts'. This seems to me to be a very reductive Marxist-sociological view of art.

The same issue as the one with Gone with the Wind arises in relation to works of Ancient Greek Sculpture or architecture. Presumably, also, because the Ancient Greeks practiced slavery, is one then likewise forced to see their sculpture and architecture as 'historical artefacts', and not as works from which one can learn something relevant to the practice of sculpture or architecture in any era? Then what about Plato or Socrates? Of course, it's possible to scour their works for evidence of a mentality that approves of slavery (and certain authors have done just that), but is that really relevant in assessing the qualities of their thinking?

If people had this kind of attitude during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, then in the modern era, we would have no science and no political institutions, no institutions of justice, etc. I think it is definitely dangerous to suggest that because of an issue like racism, it's not possible to see anything from the history of humanity as anything but an 'historical artefact', a curiosity but not something that one can learn from in relation to fundamental and vital problems. The fact is that such an attitude is one of myopia and ethnocentrism, because it suggests that today's standards are the only possible legitimate standards of thought and reflection.

But then what about Anti-Semitism, etc.? The Jewish philosopher was once asked if he wanted to participate in a 'discussion' about the Holocaust with a small circle of French philosopher colleagues and historians. His reply was 'no thank you, the Holocaust is not something that one can have a discussion about'.
January 18, 2022, 3:02AM
Thanks for the great article! I don't think I have ever seen "Fawlty Towers,", but the article's value goes way beyond the specific shows discussed. The first comment makes a good point about how we need to differentiate legitimate censorship. The issue is how we do that. Who decides when something is so dangerous that safety overrules the free flow of ideas? Safety and crisis are terms often used to justify inappropriate censorship.

We have laws and elected representatives who should be doing that through legislation. We also have courts that should be used for deliberation on the constitutionality of the laws or the infringement of the laws. The courts should also provide punishment to those who break the laws and reparations for the victims.

There are problems with the current systems. They respond slowly (which could also be a good thing in some ways). There is a risk of corruption and incompetency in the systems and the people. This is why we need to focus on the fixing the systems and holding our leaders accountable. We need better organisation, education, watchdogs, audits, whistleblowers, etc. I could go on, but I think I made the main points.

What we don't need is to give too much power to bureaucrats and institutions that aren't under the control of the people (aren't elected by the people). History shows us the damage that can do, which is so much worse than almost any damage that could come from allowing dangerous or ignorant things to be freely expressed.

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