Snitching For Jesus

You really can’t make this stuff up.

A reader recently shared an article from Resolute Square, an interesting site of which I had not previously been aware.

The article was by American historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who studies fascism and authoritarianism, and it documented a telling–and extremely troubling–tactic being deployed by the far Right. In an echo of the Third Reich, these activists are encouraging students to become “informants.”

A bill that has been approved by the Tennessee House and Senate, for example, would encourage students and staff to “report professors who taught about the legacies of racism and slavery and other “divisive concepts” in their 2022 classes. Empowering students to police their instructors helps the state weed out people who they claim are “advancing political or social agendas,” in the words of Tennessee Republican State Rep. John Ragan.

Another example is something called “Professor Watchlist.” That site was founded in 2016 by Turning Point, one of the many Koch-funded organizations that litter the American political landscape. The Professor Watchlist encourages students to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The Professor Watchlist is one of several   surveillance efforts dedicated to compiling “instances of radical behavior among college professors.” What is especially chilling is that the site includes the phone number of that instructor’s college or university, to facilitate the inevitable calls to complain.

When I was teaching, I occasionally had a student who found lessons about the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State to be “liberal propaganda.” I can only imagine the other lectures that might trigger Professor Watchlist complaints, or the reactions of teachers and professors to such monitoring. As Ben-Ghiat points out,

In an authoritarian state, there are few figures more feared and despised than informers. Ordinary people are paid by the government to monitor their compatriots and report on dissident speech or behavior at work, sports stadiums, grocery stores, bars and buses, and in classrooms. The anonymity of informers is key to their success in helping the state to break bonds of solidarity and trust among people and create a climate of suspicion, fear, and hostility. Not knowing who the informers are means that anyone could be monitoring you at any time.

One outcome of this psychological pressure is widespread self-censorship, which is a survival strategy for those living in regimes and makes the state’s job of indoctrination much easier. Both propaganda and silence feature in authoritarian campaigns to retrain minds, emotions, and behaviors. Some ideas must be repeated obsessively in the media and daily life, and other ideas must ideally be no longer heard at all in public —self-censorship factors in here.

The essay recounts the role of informers in Nazi Germany and in Mussolini’s Italy, and notes that educational institutions and the people who work within them are always high on the list for scrutiny when authoritarianism is growing.

From the recruitment of informers to the expulsion of dissidents, what happens on campus reflects and often anticipates larger transformations as authoritarianism takes hold….

The Republican assault on educators in America who expose students to ideals of peace, equality, justice, and compassion and the history of righteous struggle continues a trajectory that dates back to the Fascist era. Whether in Tennessee or New York City, encouraging students to become informers as a means of intimidating professors into censoring themselves is part of a calculated plan to erode democratic models of education and reward authoritarian models of social relations. History is clear on the destruction that ensues when societies take this path.

The White Christian Nationalists who are frantically fighting modernity and cultural change are pulling out all the stops. I am (relatively) confident that they are fighting a losing battle, but the ability of MAGA Republicans representing a largely rural population to cling to power is distorting the democratic process and impeding rational governance.

Worse, as that Christian Nationalist movement suffers defeats, a not-insignificant faction is turning to violence. Another post to the Resolute Square site points out that violence is the hallmark of authoritarian and fascist movements –and that we are seeing the “condoning, encouragement, incitement, and escalation of political violence as an acceptable means of political expression.” January 6th was a vivid example, and it is unlikely to be the only one.

We sure do live in interesting times.


“Protecting” Indiana’s Children

When Hoosier legislators talk about “protecting children,” they are rarely taking aim at tangible harms. Quite the contrary: in many cases, they are  the harm. (Just this session, Dennis Kruse has authored S.B. 34; it would deny appropriate medical and psychological services to gay youngsters.)

Indiana’s legislature is filled with culture warriors eager to appeal to the GOP’s increasingly  racist base, so I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked when legislators with absolutely no background or expertise in education take it upon themselves to prescribe what shall be taught– and how.

GOP pooh-bas are constantly complaining that reasonable efforts to protect public health are government “overreach”–yet the measure introduced by Representative Scott Baldwin is an absolute monument to overreach–much of it too vague to enforce properly, all of it likely to empower a subset of angry and uninformed parents, and–if passed– likely to drive teachers out of Indiana.

The bill was obviously motivated by the GOP’s trumped-up hysteria over Critical Race Theory (which none of its opponents can define, and which has never been taught in public schools). What opponents of CRT are really against is teaching anything suggesting that racism is bad. Obviously, when proponents of these “anti-CRT” bills accidentally admit that, it causes a bit of an uproar. So Baldwin has had to “walk back” a previous statement.

An Indiana state senator who is facing criticism for saying teachers must be impartial when discussing Nazism is walking back his remarks.

Indiana state Sen. Scott Baldwin said he wasn’t clear when he said a bill he filed at the Indiana Statehouse would require teachers to be impartial in their teaching of all subjects, including during lessons about Nazism, Marxism and fascism.

Baldwin evidently believes that discussions of Nazism, Marxism and fascism should be “fair and balanced.” Like Fox “News.”

During a committee hearing Wednesday about Senate Bill 167, a wide-ranging bill inspired by the national discourse over critical race theory, history teacher Matt Bockenfeld raised concerns about what the bill would require of teachers. He gave what he thought was an extreme example.

“For example, it’s the second semester of U.S. history, so we’re learning about the rise of fascism and the rise of Nazism right now,” Bockenfeld said. “And I’m just not neutral on the political ideology of fascism. We condemn it, and we condemn it in full, and I tell my students the purpose, in a democracy, of understanding the traits of fascism is so that we can recognize it and we can combat it.”

Baldwin’s response was instructive (pun intended):

“I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” he said. “I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position on those isms …  We need to be impartial.”

Baldwin said that even though he is with Bockenfeld “on those particular isms,” teachers should “just provide the facts.”

“I’m not sure it’s right for us to determine how that child should think and that’s where I’m trying to provide the guardrails,” Baldwin said.

There is much more that is dangerous–not to mention stupid and offensive–in Baldwin’s bill. (It is discussed in more detail at this link ). The bill is being described as an effort at “transparency,” which is wildly misleading. It would require teachers to post their syllabi and materials so that parents can access (nitpick) them; not only would such a rule be an extra burden on teachers who already have plenty to do, not only would it impose rigidity on what might otherwise be organic discussions (as teachers at the hearing pointed out), it is totally unnecessary.

Transparency already exists.

Parents who supervise their children’s homework, who visit their children’s schools, who show up for parent-teacher conferences, already have access to this information. Those parents, however, aren’t found among the angry anti-CRT, anti-mask activists who’ve descended on some school board meetings. (In several cases, it’s turned out that people in  those groups didn’t even have children in that school system.)

In my experience both as a long-ago high-school teacher and as a parent, teachers are absolutely delighted to share information with parents who are genuinely involved with their children’s education.

I know that today’s Republicans hate “elitists”–defined as people who actually know what they’re doing. The GOP is at war with climate science, dismissive of epidemiologists and medical experts, and convinced that anyone capable of reproducing knows more than classroom teachers who have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.

It’s Indiana’s great misfortune to have a legislature populated with so many walking, talking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


QAnon: Nazism Repackaged?

I haven’t written about the QAnon conspiracy, because it has seemed so ludicrous. Remember the deranged believer who traveled to a DC pizza parlor to rescue children being held in the basement–only to discover that not only weren’t there any children, there wasn’t even a basement…?

Most rational Americans dismissed both the shooter and the conspiracy that motivated him as elements of a small wacko fringe.

Still, a growing number of reports suggest a troubling growth of the cult, and I read somewhere that  at least 80 self-identified adherents had run for Congress in GOP primaries. (At least two emerged victorious–one for Congress in Georgia, one for Senate in Delaware.) And in a recent poll, 33% of Republicans responded that they believed QAnon was “mostly true,” while another 23% said they believed it was “partly true.”

If–like me–you’ve been vague on the disturbing beliefs and origin of the conspiracy, a recent article from Salon provides details:

QAnon, known for their outrageous conspiracy theories, believe that the U.S. government has been infiltrated by an international ring of pedophiles and Satanists and that President Donald Trump was put in power to battle them. And Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and an expert on the history of anti-Semitism, believes that there are parallels between QAnon’s outrageous views and the views that Nazis promoted in Germany during the 1930s.

Describing QAnon’s views in an article published by Just Security on September 9, Stanton writes, “A secret cabal is taking over the world. They kidnap children, slaughter and eat them to gain power from their blood. They control high positions in government, banks, international finance, the news media and the church. They want to disarm the police. They promote homosexuality and pedophilia. They plan to mongrelize the white race so it will lose its essential power. Does this conspiracy theory sound familiar? It is. The same narrative has been repackaged by QAnon.”

The parallels are certainly frightening. The anti-Semitic 1902 pamphlet, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” is apparently central to both. Stanton points out that QAnon’s ideology is a “rebranded version” of that pamphlet, and that its membership has grown especially rapidly in Germany. (Others have connected QAnon to the Fundamentalist Christian belief that before Jesus returns, believers will be “raptured” to heaven and will  avoid the “tribulation”–a period in which the Antichrist will attempt to rule via a “one world government” and force people to adopt the “mark of the beast.”) 

Drilling down: QAnon members core belief is that a secret, Satan-worshiping cabal is taking over the world. They believe that the members of that cabal kidnap white children– just white children– and keep them in secret prisons (like the one presumably located in the pizza parlor’s nonexistent basement) that are run by pedophiles. They also believe that the “cabal” slaughters and eats children to gain power from the “essence” in their blood. It’s here that we can clearly see the parallels with the blood libel charges against Jews, who presumably needed the blood of white Christian children for our matzoh. (These are clearly people who have never eaten matzoh, which is utterly devoid of moisture of any sort…)

This mythical cabal controlled the American presidency under Clinton and Obama, and it lurks in a ‘Deep State’ financed by Jews, especially George Soros and the Jews who “control the media.” Its members want to disarm citizens and defund the police, to promote abortions and homosexuality, and especially to open borders and allow brown illegal aliens to invade America and mongrelize the white race.

The racism embedded in all this is hard to miss. It’s also hard to believe that people who actually believe any of this are sufficiently competent to tie their shoes in the morning, let alone function otherwise.

Yet we are told that this “movement” has grown by the millions.

Like Donald Trump, who appears to be a fan of QAnon because it worships him, and like the Nazis before them, the followers of QAnon seem bent on revenge and retribution for mythical offenses. They babble endlessly about “The Storm” that is coming, by which they appear to mean a coup followed by a bloodbath. That, too, is reminiscent of Nazi style. Maybe they should just call themselves Storm Troopers.

One reason for QAnon’s explosive growth may be that–according to the FBI– promulgating QAnon has become a project of the Russian intelligence services, which have their internet armies spreading it online. So far, at least, Republican leaders have refused to denounce it, essentially acquiescing to its ongoing influence in the marginally less insane cult that is today’s GOP (although, as more outlets have been reporting on the conspiracy’s influence within the Republican Party, Talking Points Memo reports Pence did drop his planned attendance at a Montana fundraiser hosted by QAnon supporters.) 

Welcome to loony-tunes land. If it weren’t so potentially dangerous, it would be hysterically funny….



This month, the Atlantic published a lengthy article written by Anne Applebaum. It addressed what is perhaps the most difficult-to-understand aspect of our contemporary political reality, what she dubs “collaboration.” Why do some people go along with–or even genuinely support–what they must know to be wrong, or even evil, while others do not?

What’s the difference between Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney?

Applebaum began the article with a story from Germany, a description of two similar East German officials. One defected; one collaborated. What made the difference?

Separately, each man’s story makes sense. But when examined together, they require some deeper explanation. Until March 1949, Leonhard’s and Wolf’s biographies were strikingly similar. Both grew up inside the Soviet system. Both were educated in Communist ideology, and both had the same values. Both knew that the party was undermining those values. Both knew that the system, allegedly built to promote equality, was deeply unequal, profoundly unfair, and very cruel. Like their counterparts in so many other times and places, both men could plainly see the gap between propaganda and reality. Yet one remained an enthusiastic collaborator, while the other could not bear the betrayal of his ideals. Why?

Applebaum cites a historian, Stanley Hoffmann, for his classification of Nazism’s French collaborators into “voluntary” and “involuntary.” Many people in the latter group had no choice, but Hoffmann sorted“voluntary” collaborators into two categories–those who rationalized collaboration (we have to protect the economy, or preserve French culture)– and the “active ideological collaborators.” These were people who believed that “prewar republican France had been weak or corrupt and hoped that the Nazis would strengthen it, people who admired fascism, and people who admired Hitler.”

Hoffman’s description of the voluntary collaborators is more than a little relevant to today’s United States.

Hoffmann observed that many of those who became ideological collaborators were landowners and aristocrats, “the cream of the top of the civil service, of the armed forces, of the business community,” people who perceived themselves as part of a natural ruling class that had been unfairly deprived of power under the left-wing governments of France in the 1930s. Equally motivated to collaborate were their polar opposites, the “social misfits and political deviants” who would, in the normal course of events, never have made successful careers of any kind. What brought these groups together was a common conclusion that, whatever they had thought about Germany before June 1940, their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with the occupiers.

There is much more in the article that deserves consideration and illuminates political and social realities, and I urge readers to click through and read it in its entirety. But the quoted paragraph could easily be a description of the Americans who continue to support Donald Trump.

It is impossible for any sentient person to observe Trump and conclude that he is fit for office (or even sane). So why does he still maintain the support of roughly 40% of Americans? Hoffman’s two categories are explanatory: that “natural ruling class” that is being “unfairly deprived of power” describes the educated cohort of white “Christian” males who are mortally offended by the prospect of sharing social dominance with uppity women and people of color. And our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are full of pictures and videos of the “social deviants”–waving Confederate flags, carrying assault weapons to government buildings to assert their “right” to infect their neighbors, attacking black joggers, and flourishing misspelled placards insulting the “libtards.”

Whatever either group had thought about Trump before November, 2016, they decided that their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with him.

Describing the members of both categories is one thing. Figuring out why people become who they are is another–and much harder.

Why do some people grow up to model the virtues society preaches– compassion, empathy and self-reflection (or at the very least, human decency), while others enthusiastically reject and demean those values?

Why do some people work to make a better world, often at considerable risk to their own well-being, while others cheerfully collaborate with evil?


How It Can Happen Here

A month or so ago, the New York Review of Books ran a lengthy essay by Christopher Browning, titled The Suffocation of Democracy.

Browning is a historian specializing in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and–as one might expect–the essay considers the parallels and differences between then in Germany and now in the United States. He notes several troubling similarities–and one equally troubling difference. After sketching U.S. policies in the run-up to World War Two, and emphasizing the importance of the post-war international agreements, he writes

Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.

In addition to the “agenda of withdrawal” parallels, he compares the political weakness of those in control of the Weimar Republic–weakness that led them to cast their lot with Hitler–to the shrinking American support for conservatism that led to the GOP’s embrace of Trump.

But Browning saves his most scathing–and accurate– criticism for Mitch McConnell, writing

If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings….Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.

The difference Browning identifies between then and now is equally unsettling. Hitler had to take overt actions to dissolve labor unions, to seize control of media and pursue other measures that consolidated his power. Browning says such actions are no longer necessary, because American democracy is being suffocated from within: the independence of the judiciary is being steadily eroded; the free press still exists, but has been neutered by a flood of propaganda and fake news; and systemic flaws like gerrymandering and the Electoral College have allowed the GOP to win elections despite garnering only minority support.

On these issues, often described as the guardrails of democracy against authoritarian encroachment, the Trump administration either has won or seems poised to win significant gains for illiberalism. Upon his appointment as chancellor, Hitler immediately created a new Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, who remained one of his closest political advisers.

In Trump’s presidency, those functions have effectively been privatized in the form of Fox News and Sean Hannity.

I think it was Mark Twain who said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.