In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (W. W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 6-7), Amartya Sen, in the course of asserting how ‘our freedom to assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinarily limited in the eyes of others’, slips in the following:
[S]ometimes we may not even be fully aware how others identify us, which may differ from self-perception. There is an interesting lesson in an old Italian story–from the 1920s when support for fascist politics was spreading rapidly across Italy–concerning a political recruiter from the Fascist Party arguing with a rural socialist that he should join the Fascist Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Fascist Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Fascist recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the rural socialist, “if your father had been a murderer and your grandfather had also been a murderer? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Fascist Party.”
Dunno about you, but when I read this, I chuckled long and hard. This is genuinely knee-slapping stuff.
Analyzing a ‘joke’ is a decidedly unfunny business, but I’m going to press on regardless. There are three levels on which this story ‘works.’
First, of course, is the partisan one. We laugh because we think the Fascist recruiter, the representative of a murderous regime, received a rather effective and witty, even if perhaps unwitting, comeuppance from someone he might have considered his political and intellectual inferior. It’s good to laugh at Fascists–pompous, brownshirted, jackbooted types, all of them.
Second, the story conveys the impeccable logic of both interlocutors quite well. The Fascist recruiter, as Sen notes, picks apart the ‘fallacy’ of the socialist: Why should your ancestors’ political commitments be so determinative of your current political commitments? The socialist, in response, relies on a supposedly inductive extension of what seem to be his family’s predelictions in the counterfactual state just described for him: All members of this clan thus far indulge in activity X, therefore so will I (in the current political manifestation of X.)
Third, and this might be the reason for the story’s enduring appeal, we recognize within it an abstract formal schema that can be pressed into service across variations in time and space and political commitment. This may be easily demonstrated by my twist on the tale:
There is an interesting lesson in an old American folktale–from the early 2000s when support for Republican Party politics was spreading rapidly across the US–concerning a political recruiter from the Republican Party arguing with an urban progressive that he should join the Republican Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Republican Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Republican Party recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the urban progressive, “if your father had been a hypocritical sexist racist and your grandfather had also been a hypocritical sexist racist? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Republican Party.”