Learning From (Illinois) Nazis
By Ezra Claverie
In the weeks since a white supremacist in Charlottesville used a car to attack anti-fascists, a lot of people have been posting on Facebook the scene from The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980) where Jake and Elwood drive their car at Illinois Nazis. The Nazis jump off the bridge, humiliated but unhurt, then spend the rest of the film trying, but failing, to kill Jake and Elwood.
The bridge scene gets laughs in part because of the self-seriousness of the leader of the Nazis, played by steely-eyed but short and unimposing Henry Gibson, but also in part because Jake and Elwood transgress a liberal norm. They defy the limits of an American liberalism that says the law should protect the speech (and so on) even for groups who would, given control of the levers of state power, use that power not only to eliminate legal protections for dissenting speech, but also to expel or exterminate opponents.
If Jake and Elwood really believed in American-style liberalism–the old “I may disagree with you but I defend your right to speak”–we wouldn’t have the scene, as famous as any in the film. The brothers’ transgression allows audiences to experience vicariously the thrill of flouting this norm against a group that most people already love to hate. But the stakes for Jake and Elwood, white Catholics not affiliated with the left, began low. Had they just waited their turn in the traffic jam, they might have had no problems even if the Illinois Nazis had later captured the government. (The same does not hold for their Black band mates or the Black artists whose songs the Blues Brothers cover. And would Illinois Nazis even allow the performance of such entartete musik?)
Karl Schmitt–the German, coincidentally Catholic, and, after 1933, Nazi jurist–explicitly articulated a principle relevant here, which American liberalism rejects: the friend-enemy distinction, upon which (Schmitt argued) all political life operates.
According to Schmitt, you must define as “enemy” one who seeks to eliminate the circumstances that allow you and your group, collectively, to exist as political actors. The Enemy “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”
Rivals and opponent groups may bitterly debate and wrangle with your group, but provided they do not constitute an existential threat, you can count them as Friends. In contrast, an Enemy aims to remove your group from the field of political contestation. Schmitt therefore argued that only political parties not intent on neutralizing or dismantling the parliamentary system, as the Nazis did, should be allowed participation in the Reichstag. Nevertheless, when they came to power, he joined.
Alex James Fields, the white supremacist who drove the car that killed Heather D. Heyer and injured many others, identified his Enemies. He drove a car into a crowd that included members of Democratic Socialists of America and Industrial Workers of the World, leftist groups of the kind that fascists, whether in or out of state power, target for killing. Fields, who associated with the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, sought to eliminate the fundamental circumstance that allowed his Enemies to exist as political actors: their lives. For observers and survivors, the attack functioned as terrorism, an implicit warning: if you come out against white supremacy, the same could happen to you. He clarified American white supremacy as an existential threat to anti-racists and the left.
And yet on the same grounds we could characterize Jake and Elwood’s rush at the Illinois Nazis as an act of political terrorism. We hear the car’s engine revving, but we never hear the brakes; nothing in the scene suggests that Elwood will stop if the Nazis stand their ground. Their leap into the river gives them and the movie a means of escape from the serious question of what to do about people who, if they came to power, would slaughter you, me, or our friends. The failure of Jake and Elwood’s act of terrorism, like the failure of the Nazis’ quest for vengeance, turns the scene into comedy.
Liberals, both in the classical European and American senses, tend to imagine a political world without Enemies, where political stakes never rise to life-and-death. Within their political horizon, liberals treat disagreements as temporary and tactical, with deliberations over details of policy or administrative practice taking the place of struggles over fundamental questions, which mythologized culture heroes settled long ago. The failure or betrayal of state-socialist alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, to which Thatcher famously claimed “There is no alternative,” has only exacerbated this tendency.
Schmitt and many on the left and right regard as wishful thinking the notion of a world without political Enemies. Charlottesville reminded us that the stakes of political life remain high, especially for those who confront America’s resurgent and racist far right.
About the Author:
Ezra Claverie has a PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His essays have appeared in Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, The Journal of American Culture, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. His primary research looks at Hollywood studios’ use of superheroes owned by the comics duopoly of DC and Marvel, reading these films as allegories of the corporate management of intellectual property. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai.