Matthew Sanders: The Atlantic is super-wrong for using 'fascist' label in Superman story

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20 2013 6:30 p.m. MST

And so it’s come to this? The Atlantic is equating someone for his belief in traditional, time-honored marriage with the 20th century’s most heinous mass murderers?

Featured by The Atlantic's online editors as a top story, Noah Berlatsky's article labels Orson Scott Card and anyone who shares his belief and stance for traditional marriage as a bigot and a fascist. Berlatsky is a gay activist who writes about comics and culture and understandably advocates for his ideals and beliefs.

Berlatsky opposes DC Comic's decision to allow the award-winning, best-selling science fiction writer Orson Scott Card to write for their Superman franchise. But instead of using thoughtful argument, Berlatsky hurls labels: bigoted and fascist, equating Superman and Card with the KKK and fascists. Yet, shortly thereafter, Berlatsky suggests that Superman is "supergood" and would never hate gays like Card and his type.

Here’s the problem and the danger with Berlatsky’s approach and why it should be understood in a different frame. First, he grossly misuses the notion of fascism, while using some of its subtle tactics. Second, he twists the debate to turn Card’s freedom to express belief and principles into the arch-enemy of good.

Misuse of “fascism”

Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot and other fascists, communists and totalitarians spilled the blood of over 100 million people in the 20th century. In each case, they assumed total and complete power over their populations. They built fervor for their ideologies by segmenting their population with labels.

One can take issue with Card’s beliefs and tact, but for The Atlantic to equate the fiction author's defense of his beliefs as fascism is absurd, and ironic. Absurd because Berlatsky attaches a sweeping label to supporters of traditional marriage as “anti-gay” and “homophobic," as though they wouldn't be for marriage if it weren't for their hate. Ironic because he actually mimics tactics used by real fascists like Il Duce, Mussolini — where in his famous motto he declared, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” It is hard to ignore such similarities when activists like Berlatsky label any beliefs or statements other than complete support for gay marriage as “hate speech” or “thought crimes.”

His techniques aside, Berlatsky's cavalier use of the word and notion represents a lack of historical perspective and human sensitivity. I’ve seen the results of fascism at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s heart-wrenching holocaust museum. I’ve been in the former Yugoslavia and in Albania where totalitarians chained their people’s thoughts, beliefs and behaviors to a totalitarian regime. More recently, I've been involved in humanitarian aid efforts for Cambodia, where there remains a haunting lack of an older generation because they were exterminated by Pol Pot.

I also recall in a class at Harvard when someone used the word “fascist” to label someone else’s comment. My Spanish classmate nearly came out of his chair to rebuff the individual for misusing the word, forcefully clarifying the difference between an economic policy position and the coercive living conditions in Franco’s fascist Spain. He expressed it with passion and horror, giving guarded detail about the effect on his family and friends.

Such experiences left me committed to always use the words “fascist” or “Nazi” with great care.

Restraining belief by labels wrong

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