How do you convince someone to resist?

March 15, 2019 (1448 words) :: In 'The Man in the High Castle', one of the characters, John Smith, went from fighting the Nazis to becoming a high-ranking Nazi official.
Tags: the-man-in-the-high-castle, the-left

This post is day 74 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

We’re in the midst of a really horrific news cycle, and I don’t really have anything to say other than that it’s obviously horrible and tech platforms are complicit. I’m also running low on steam when it comes to writing these fragments (hopefully temporarily), but I don’t want to break the streak. So today’s post is going to be a short one investigating an aspect of one character in the Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle. Content warnings: spoilers from seasons 1-3 of the show and discussion of Nazis.

(I originally meant today’s post as a topic that’s completely unrelated to what’s going on in reality, but this show about Nazis is unfortunately not as removed from our contemporary reality as it should be.)

John Smith is one of the most intriguing characters on the show. When we’re introduced to him in season 1, as a ruthless Nazi bureaucrat who is intent on destroying the resistance, he seems to be your standard one-dimensional villain. It gets a little more nuanced when we’re introduced to his family, the picture of the wholesome 1950s America nuclear family: here’s a man who genuinely seems to care about his wife and kids, to the extent that he’s willing to subvert the Reich’s genetic purity laws (murdering the doctor who could expose his son’s illness).

What does this tell us about Smith? How does he square his belief in the Reich with his insistence that the Reich’s laws don’t apply to his family? Or does his belief get shaken by this - does it force him to realise that the system is not as good as he thought?

Or maybe he never really believed. When DC was wiped out with an atomic bomb in December 1945, Smith - then a decorated officer in the US military - didn’t really have much choice. His chain of command had been completely destroyed in a matter of seconds. Who was he supposed to report to, if not the newly victorious Nazis? What else was he supposed to believe in, especially when he had a wife and unborn son to protect?

Certainly there wasn’t much hope in the Resistance, at the time. When the show begins, it’s nearly a decade after America’s surrender and the Resistance still hasn’t managed to achieve much, not to mention their extremely high fatality rate. Smith may have qualms about the Nazis (we’re never really told, though it’s hinted at) and he may have prefered a world where the Allies had won, but once that possibility is obliterated in a mushroom cloud, what else is he supposed to do? Resist and die; or, surrender and live. In other words, Smith made the rational choice.

That’s not to say that Smith was right, in a moral sense, to work for his former enemy rather than resisting. But questions of morality are tough in a world where the terrain of possibility is so constrained, surrounded by the steel walls of impending fascist rule. In any case, on what moral grounds could Smith have refused to join the Nazis? When the Nazis took over, there wouldn’t have been any organised opposition for Smith to identify with even if he had wanted to - the Nazis would have made sure of that. There wouldn’t have been a strong movement for Smith to join and fight with. Morality is always relative, and it’s hard to maintain commitments in solitude.

The Axis conquest of America probably generated a similar “there is no alternative” feel to the one that exists today. Let’s call it “fascist realism”. For most of the people who live in this conquered America, there is no other world to fight for. Their choices are to exist within the system as best as they can, or to attempt an exit, which is hardly a choice at all (see: the conscribed lives and short lifespans of members of the Resistance, or those who live in the neutral zone). What are they supposed to do, die for a dream of America - a dream that they can hardly even imagine, so consumed are they with the mundane realities of day-to-day subsistence?

Besides, the American dream - the America that would have been had the Allies won - isn’t exactly stellar, either. The America that Smith had committed to defending was the America of Japanese internment camps during the war, which would become the America of Jim Crow, of a belligerent foreign policy bringing devastation to so many countries, of an extremely cruel immigration system that only seems to be getting worse. And let’s not forget that actually existing America detonated its own fair share of atomic weapons over densely populated cities.

This image of America is not one that’s likely to inspire much fighting spirit from Resistance members. But it’s the only America we, the audience, have today. And in our America, there is no shortage of people in positions of power who defend the system as it is, even if they do have moral qualms with the historical conditions that created the system (e.g., the transatlantic slave trade) and the conditions required for maintaining the system (strong borders, endless war, destruction of natural resources, massive exploitation of workers around the world). They know the system isn’t perfect, and is in fact quite flawed, but they still defend and uphold it, in the same way that Smith can continue to work for a regime that would have his son put to death because he has a genetic disorder.

This isn’t to say that people who defend the neoliberal status quo are Nazi collaborators. The point is rather that people will defend even a system they know is bad, whether it’s American imperialism or the (much worse) Nazi variant of imperialism, because they believe that the system is the best that can be achieved at the moment. Whether it’s capitalist realism, or fascist realism, it stems from the belief that there is no alternative. At least, no alternative worth fighting and possibly dying for. After all, you only get one life, and if you don’t prioritise your own, who will?

By the end of season 3, Smith has become the Führer’s right-hand man in America, but it seems like the closer he gets to the height of the Nazi pyramid, the greater his distance from his family - ostensibly his reason for serving the Nazis in the first place. His wife, Helen, feels like she barely knows him anymore, and they still haven’t truly grieved the death of their first-born son at the hands of the regime they serve. Things get progressively worse between them until the end of season 3, when Helen flees with their remaining children, leaving John all alone - crumbling under the weight of an empire he no longer seems to believe in, with no moral compass left to guide his actions.

What’s next for Smith? Season 4 hasn’t aired yet, so I’m only guessing, but I suspect that he will defect from the Reich, and I think it will have something to do with his deceased son, Thomas, who keeps showing up in the films from other worlds. Thomas must still be alive in one of these parallel worlds - most notably, the world where the Allies won the war - and perhaps Juliana Crain (who “travelled” away before Smith could interrogate her) will enlist Thomas’s otherworldly alterego to win over his father, by sketching out a world where the Allies had won and Smith did not have to become a Nazi.

If there is one central message from John Smith’s storyline, I think it’s to remind us how easy it is to become wrapped up in a system that we know is wrong, purely because we don’t know how to resist. Systems can have a gravity of their own. Still, there is always room for agency in the end, and even the most stalwart converts can become disillusioned if the right conditions hold.

At the risk of sounding like someone who derives all of her political strategy from a fictional television show, I think there’s a key takeaway here when it comes to left organising. Trying to convince people to fight against the system - often the only system they can really imagine, and certainly the only system they’ve ever known - is not easy, especially when the system feels so concrete and unassailable; it’s hardly surprising that many would prefer to cling to the familiar, despite its brokenness. Defending the status quo is understandable in the absence of compelling alternatives. It’s up to the left to sketch out an alternative worth fighting for.

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