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

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 4:41 p.m. MDT

Screenshot of The Atlantic homepage. (The Atlantic) Screenshot of The Atlantic homepage. (The Atlantic)

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.

Mother and son praying. (Shutterstock) Mother and son praying. (Shutterstock)

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

Berlatsky further steps onto dangerous ground by positioning Card and religious believers as extreme and hateful and therefore not “supergood” like Superman. In fact, after claiming the supposed fascist roots of Superman, he says, “It's disturbing to have Orson Scott Card writing Superman, then, in part because Superman is supergood, and the supergood shouldn't hate gay people.”

Not only do The Atlantic editors attempt to take the moral high ground most secularists seek to deny anyone, but they also fundamentally deny the good done by people of belief in a troubled world simply because of a difference in life principles.

Christians and people of faith today do much good in a troubled, needy world. They give money, time and goods to the poor on a remarkable scale. They raise decent children in environments that are increasingly hostile to their beliefs and behaviors — where images, stories, games and movies involving drugs, hedonism, dishonesty and brutality fill their TV and iPad screens.

While there are painful exceptions, most people of faith deliberately and peacefully work to improve their families and communities. They tend to be vigilant, not vigilantes toward issues and principles that matter to them, which is their right. In countless acts of kindness, people of belief have been a force for good that would make a real Superman very glad to have as allies.

Ironically, by denying a person of faith the right to believe in and argue for their vision of the world — which they desire for their posterity — would necessarily defy Berlatsky’s opportunity speak of his ideal.

For instance, on his blog, Gay Utopia, Berlatsky lays out his vision as, “The gay utopia is an imaginary future in which gender, sexuality, and identity are fluid and in which pleasure is unregulated by either external or internal censors. It's a place where taboos dissolve and sublimation vanishes; every relationship is erotic, every action sensual.” While his vision of the ideal future clashes abruptly with my personal belief and behavior, no individual, government or society should condemn it as a thought crime or hate speech.

Any student of history must acknowledge that people of faith come from a religious heritage where early believers were attacked, defamed and sometimes killed for their stands. So it is not without some reason that people of belief worry about their rights of expression and behavior.

After all, despots have long targeted religious groups to galvanize power. Marx and the Soviets considered religion “the opiate of the people.” Nero gave the people “bread and circuses” where Christians were dismembered. Hitler targeted Jews. At the end of the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge there were almost no Buddhist monks left alive.

The United States has been an anomaly in world history with its fundamental protection of religious freedom against state and societal encroachment. In its more than 200 years, the attacks on religion in our borders have been rare compared to other areas of the world.

Kindness and respect the key

As human beings we have the capacity to be kind, loving and understanding of others while not accepting their behavior. It is called charity, and is one of the most remarkable traits we can develop. This attribute is taught fervently in Christianity. We are also taught to not throw stones at individuals with moral flaws, because each of us is blemished. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for the homosexual population to expect kind and understanding treatment from Christians.

In like manner, it is not without reason to appeal to the LGBT community and its supporters to show restraint and respect toward those who believe differently.

As a people, we should be wary of labels like fascism and hate that divide and dismember us. It is particularly misguided to attack people for seeking to perpetuate principles and faith they believe are in the best interest of their children and generations to come.

Matthew studied economics at BYU and business and government at Harvard. He is GM of Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service at Deseret Digital Media. Follow him on Twitter @Sanders_Matt or subscribe to the Reframing the Debate email feed.

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