Sunday Pages: "Less Than Zero"
A song by Elvis Costello
Declan MacManus couldn’t believe what he was watching. It was 1975, he was 21 years old, and on Thames Television—on a news program called “Today”—an old British Nazi was trying to rehabilitate his image.
“I was never anti-Semitic,” the anti-Semite calmly explained, in his fancy, high-class accent. Once upon a time, a liberal newspaper called him “the most polished literary speaker in the Commons,” and those oratorical powers were in full evidence during the interview. “I had a quarrel—not with some Jews”—and here he corrected his Freudian slip—“not with all Jews but with some Jews about one subject: whether there should be a Second World War or not.” It wasn’t anti-Semitism that made him against the war, he claimed; it was pacifism. He remembered the horrors of the Great War, you see, in which he’d served, and didn’t want a repeat.
The old man was Sir Oswald Mosely. In 1932, he founded a political party called the British Union of Fascists. Just in case his intentions were not clear, he changed its name four years later to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists—that is, Nazis. He was a fluffer of Mussolini and Hitler. He was, among other things, responsible for the Battle of Cable Street—a sort of proto-Charlottesville—in which his jackbooted thug followers clashed with anti-Fascist protestors while trying to terrorize a Jewish neighborhood of London. Thirty thousand people attended his “Britain First” rally in July of 1939, two months before Hitler invaded Poland. The fascists were a small but vocal minority, and Mosely’s was the loudest and most erudite voice.
There was in Britain at the time, as there was in the United States, plenty of pro-Nazi sentiment. The former king Edward VIII—who’d abdicated in late 1936, less than a year after taking the throne, so he could marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson—was a well known Nazi sympathizer. (He was another Brit who spewed seemingly-innocent pacifist rhetoric to help Hitler.) His wife was fully pro-Nazi, so much so that she was allegedly boinking the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop. The fear of a Nazi coup in Britain, in which Edward would be installed on the throne as a pro-German dictator, was so acute that the royal couple was exiled to the faraway Bahamas to wait out the war. FDR had men there tracking his movements.
Mosely wasn’t so lucky. There would be no Caribbean getaway for him. Within two weeks of becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had the hateful traitor locked up for the duration of the war; the MI5 had infiltrated the British Union of Fascists and Nazis and knew what it was up to, so its founder was in big trouble.
But here was Mosely, forty years later, whitewashing his own shameful personal history. And here was the host of Thames TV, giving the elderly Nazi a platform.
Declan MacManus saw this and was so disgusted, he wrote a song about it:
Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo.
There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo.
Carve a “V” for “vandal” on the guilty boy’s head—
When he’s had enough of that maybe you’ll take him to bed,
To teach him he’s alive before he wishes he was dead.
The song was called “Less Than Zero.” It was the eighth track and the first single on MacManus’s debut album, My Aim Is True, released in 1977 under his stage name: Elvis Costello.
Americans, being proudly ignorant, had no idea who Oswald Mosely was—I didn’t, either!—and assumed the song was about an even more notorious “Mr. Oswald,” Lee Harvey. Costello later re-wrote the lyrics to change his protagonist. But as fun as the “Dallas version” is, the original perfectly captures the Fascist mindset: violent, amoral, perverse, and, above all, nihilistic. The sing-song chorus is a powdery rail of uncut nihilism:
Turn up the TV,
No one listening will suspect,
Even your mother won’t detect it,
So your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect,
But everything means less than zero.
On the surface, this sounds like a horny teenager trying to convince his girlfriend to have sex even though her parents are in the next room. That’s the general meaning—out-to-lunch parents, kids behaving badly—that Bret Easton Ellis had in mind when he purloined the title for his nihilistic debut novel. Certainly that’s what I thought until recently.
Now, I realize, it’s much darker than that. “Less Than Zero” is not about sex. It’s about radicalization. The “Mr. Oswald” of the first line is not Mosely himself, but rather a contemporary neo-Nazi who stans Mosely—an alt-right figure of 1977, basically. His moral compass is completely broken:
Oswald and his sister are doing it again.
They’ve got the finest home movies that you have ever seen.
And he’s looking for converts to the cause.
The last verse is a noxious blend of bloodshed, Fascist capture of law enforcement, jaw-dropping amorality, child abuse, and gaslighting. Mr. Oswald, clearly, is what we now call ultra-MAGA. If he was around today he’d have his own alt-right podcast and be a fixture at CPAC:
A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor.
Mister Oswald said he had an understanding with the law.
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA.
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet.
The last line of the song brings us back to Mosely, gaslighting his way through that 1975 interview:
Let’s talk about the future now; we’ve put the past away.
Ah, but the past can never be put away. We are all prisoners of it. We must forgive if we have the capacity, but we need never forget—especially when the ones suing for forgiveness are Fascists and Nazis, the nastiest, ugliest scum humanity has ever produced. Why believe their fantastical tales of redemption? Why listen to them at all?
Like the current batch of American Nazis desperately seeking rehabilitation, Mosely was irredeemable—as the young Declan MacManus recognized. Some sins can never be atoned for. Some stains never wash off. Some things mean a great deal more than zero.
Our guest on The Five 8 was Jim Campbell, author of Madoff Talks, who gave us an excellent explainer on the fall of Silicon Valley Bank:
The above photographs were taken by Yours Truly on March 2, when we went to see Elvis Costello & the Imposters in Kingston, New York. The show was fantastic. EC was in fine voice. The set list was eclectic and satisfying, especially the closing numbers. And his banter is stand-up-comic-level funny. I highly recommend catching him on this tour if you can.