Beware of “Democracy in Danger”

The rhetoric of imminent threats to the political system has been used and abused throughout history to stifle dissent, polarize politics, ostracize opposition, and much, much worse.


Political persuasion has been an art for millennia, going back to the very earliest non-absolutist systems such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. In those days, the targets of persuasion were primarily a socially-homogenous elite oligarchy which controlled politics without real input from the majority of the people. As time went on and these systems evolved (with fits and starts) into their more modern and recognizable forms, bringing more people into the political process, the targets of persuasion broadened. This expansion of the electorate, especially after the democratic revolutions and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries, helped lead to the simplified messaging, inflammatory rhetoric, and hyperbolized language we are so familiar with today. Perhaps the easiest message by which to persuade voters to your side is the invocation of peril, especially to the political system or “way of life.” Much of the power of this message emanates from the association of the State with the People more broadly; instead of Louis XIV’s formulation “L’état, c’est moi,” we have a more pluralistic – although no more accurate – vision, “Létat, c’est nous.” This binding of People with State makes it possible to expand a narrow political danger to encompass all of society, feeding an attitude of existential menace. This stoking of a feeling of danger to the very foundations of the nation (and thus the People) is a powerful motivator by which to get your way politically; as such, it has been used by governments repeatedly over the past two centuries to achieve their goals – often for the worse.

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No, This Isn’t Kristallnacht

And your political opponents aren’t Nazis.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen several viral posts and news articles going around the Internet that really struck a nerve with my historian brain. These have involved people on the right and the left, often well-meaning, comparing current political events and turmoil to the infamous November 1938 “Night of Broken Glass”, also known as Kristallnacht. That two-night pogrom in Nazi Germany involved the widespread destruction of Jewish businesses and property, the torching of almost 1,500 synagogues, and the killing of over 90 Jews. In the aftermath of these destructive and targeted riots, Jews were done the ignominy of having to pay for the damages caused to their own property by vile anti-Semitic thugs. Besides that forced payment, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, due to nothing else but their religious and ethnic origins. Kristallnacht is widely seen by historians as being one of the first actions of the genocide of the European Jews known as the Holocaust. As such, it is rightly viewed as an evil atrocity which should never happen again.

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“The Remedy to be Applied is More Speech”: Debunking Holocaust Denial

Introduction

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”[1]

Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of American society and an important classical liberal ideal, but it is a right which is not always convenient, convivial, or comity-inducing. In fact, allowing the full flourishing of the freedom of expression and speech often includes permitting speech that much of society will find despicable, evil, offensive, or harmful. Unfortunately, there is a strong cultural – and outside of the United States, legal – movement to restrict speech freedoms and police the public discourse, sometimes with actual police officers.[2] This trend is only accelerating with the mass adoption of social media and Internet communications more broadly, as well as the perpetually searchable online past of nearly everyone in society. So-called ‘cancel culture’ is commonplace in certain circles of political and social activism, and virtually every potentially controversial opinion (and many that are not) is met with the metaphorical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.[3] There are increasing levels of pushback against this trend, but the idea of ‘de-platforming’, stifling, or censoring speech which the vast majority of society considers beyond the pale – support for terrorism and blatant white supremacy, to give two examples – is quite popular, especially among younger people. According to a poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech, “61 percent of Americans agree that free speech should be restricted, and 51 percent believe that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, should be rewritten to reflect the new cultural norms of today. Millennials feel a greater sense of negativity from free speech, with 57 percent agreeing that the First Amendment should be rewritten, and 54 percent believing that possible jail time would be an appropriate consequence for ‘hate speech.’”[4] Despite the strong American constitutional protections for free speech, as seen in the First Amendment quoted above, without a strong cultural presumption and acceptance of the values around free speech, the right itself can be chipped away.

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Did Six Million Really Die? – Yes

The Earth is flat. Dinosaurs lived alongside humans. Aliens built the Egyptian pyramids. Elvis is still alive on another planet. The Holocaust never happened.

All of the aforementioned statements are unequivocally false, conspiratorial pablum; still, some people in modern America believe each one of them. The most painful and despicable of these lies is the final one presented, that of the falsity of the Holocaust. True believers in the ‘Holocaust hoax’ conspiracy theory are, thankfully, few and far between, but the lack of Holocaust knowledge within the American population is stunningly high. According to a 2018 survey, “Nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 Millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust” and “While there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials.”[1] This lack of historical knowledge around the Holocaust plays directly into the hands of those who wish to deny it and provides an opening for denialist rhetoric and ‘information’ to fill the gaps.

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III. “The Only Remedy to be Applied is More Speech”

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

–   Justice Louis Brandeis, Whitney v. California


Before getting into the meat of this section, I have a simple question for you to consider: since the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, has the United States or any American state ever been governed by a party or individual that has openly espoused fascist or Nazi ideology?Read More »