Liberal Fascism

Coit Tower, Fascist?

Casey Bowman, an intrepid blogger, wonders if San Francisco’s Coit Tower is a shrine to liberal fascism. It features an enormous phoenix and a few prominent fasces so, Bowman wonders, if this a reference to HG Wells’ call for a “Phoenix-like rebirth” of liberalism under the banner of Liberal Fascism.

I think it would be really cool if he’s right, and if anyone knows more about this, lemme know. But, alas, I doubt it.

One of the things that didn’t make it to the final cut of the book was a longish discussion of the symbol of the fasces in American and western public art, architecture and symbols. The reason I cut it out was pretty simple. There are just too many examples of it and there’s not too much that’s fascistic about it. Thanks to fascism, the fasces — a bundle of sticks wrapped around an ax — is now seen as more exotic or sinister than was the case a couple generations ago.

A quick recap. The fasces goes back thousands of years. Basically, it symbolizes strength in unity. It became a symbol at various times of Republican and imperial authority in ancient Rome. Judges would carry them with them as symbols of justice, unity and the sovereignty in the Roman Republic. (Not that anyone cares, but Rome inherited this tradition from the Etruscans and the first known images of fasces as symbols of authority date back to 600 B.C.).

The word modern “fascism” is derived from the Italian fascio which means band, or union or league. While the image of bands of young “fascists” understandably sounds sinister – and indeed was – there was little inherently “fascist” to it. Young socialists and other leftist radicals had been forming fascios since the 1870s. Mussolini adopted the symbolism when he gathered the veterans to form a new “socialism of the trenches” which led to fascism.

For much of the last two millennia the fasces were a symbol of republicanism, variously defined. You can find fasces on various flags across Europe, particularly in Switzerland where Republicanism was most popular. The Swiss canton of St Gallen still sports a fasces on its flag. The symbol of France under the Fourth Republic (they’re on their fifth Republic now. But who’s counting?) was a fasces surrounded by the words Liberté, Egalité and “I surrender!” Just kidding: It’s liberte, egalite, fraternity. As I understand it, France still uses this emblem in the Assembly Hall of the United Nations. And, I believe, France uses a different fasces on their passports. Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University boasts an ostentatious fasces. The Norwegian police depict fasces on their badges as did the badges of the US army’s military police, or so I’ve read.

Sorry for the caveats (I believe, I think, etc) but since this stuff never made it into the book, I never went back and fact-checked some of it as thoroughly or as recently as I’d like.

But the point remains, the symbolism of the fasces is sinister mostly in hindsight. Indeed, in the United States, you can find non-fascist fasces all over the place. They’re a staple of American neoclassical architecture. You can find one at the Lincoln Memorial. The US Flag in the House of Representatives is flanked by two bronze fasces. The “Mercury Head” liberty dime bore a fasces on the back. The state seals of Colorado and Nebraska (unofficially) feature fasces as does the artwork in countless American courthouses. The Medals of Honor awarded to members of the US Army and Navy, both designed in the 1860s, show Minerva dispatching Discord (in the form of a bunch of snakes) using – you guessed it — a fasces. You can find these things all over America and Americana, from many of the most famous statues of George Washington – including Jean-Antoine Houdon’s — to the patterns in drapes in various government office buildings.

Now, as for the Coit Tower, I don’t know a lot about it. But if you wanted to make the case that it’s fascistic it probably wouldn’t be too hard. Aesthetically, a lot of the stuff built, sculpted or painted in the 1930s had that feel. Check out the sculpture on the Hoover Dam next time you’re out there. It could be Soviet or National Socialist — to my admittedly untrained eyes. That the murals in the Coit tower were painted under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project is a good sign that the builders of the tower were in that milieu (though the pictures of the mural at Wikipedia don’t look particularly fascistic to me). And of course, by 1933, it might tell you something that these guys were still using fasces more than a decade after Mussolini had co-opted the word and symbol.

Still, three things make me skeptical that the Coit tower was directly inspired by HG Well’s speech. First, phoenixes and fasces were still commonplace icons in the 1930s. Second, fascistic architecture, loosely speaking, was all the rage anyway. And three, I doubt that Wells’ speech had that sort of impact in San Francisco back then. That said, I would just love to be proven wrong.

Update: A reader makes a good point:

Would not the Phoenix be a reference to San Francisco’s reconstruction

after the great fire caused by the 1906 earthquake?  That seems more

like it.



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