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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 3, 2023

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I'm probably more philo than anti semitic, and a whole bunch of Jews certainly disappeared circa 1940-45, but I have written before about the ways that Holocaust education fails American and global students. Reposting old comment from last year:

The Russian war on Ukraine proves the uselessness of "telling everybody how bad the Nazis were and not to be a Nazi" as a Nazi-Prevention-Method

The Holocaust is one of the few things that are taught thoroughly in almost every American curriculum. Everywhere we learned the refrain "Never Again," I recall reading at least three books on the Holocaust from the perspective of Jews, we learned that the Nazis were the ultimate evil, etc. The only historical facts I recall learning in as much detail as many times growing up were the Declaration of Independence and The Walking Purchase.

For a long time, I've felt that we focus too much on the perspective of the victims and not enough on the perspective of the Germans (and on the facts of the broader European fascist movement and Western sympathy for it). If our goal is "Never Again" then we don't just need to see that the actions of the Nazis were wrong and bad, but how they came about, the perspective of the victims is irrelevant compared to making sure that we are never the perpetrators. Rather than Anne Frank and Night and watching Schindler's List we should be reading Hannah Arendt and Chomsky and watching Conspiracy. The result of learning the Holocaust only from the perspective of the victims is that we get everyone from the unvaccinated, to illegal immigrants, to <AEO claiming that their enemies are Nazis and about to put them into camps; and not nearly enough earnest self reflection about whether the people we're following are going in the wrong direction.

Well, I think we have the perfect test-case here. Russia has long made The Great Patriotic War and Russia's role in it the center of national history and pride. And leaving aside debates over severity of war crimes or long term motivations for the invasion, I think it is fairly self evident that Special Operation Z is the kind of thing that "Never Again" education is meant to prevent. Gary Kasparov memes are cute and all, but the fact that people can be inculcated with the message that "Nazis are Evil/The Worst" to such an extent that they'll follow a Charismatic National Leader and adopt a collective symbol on their way to launching a war of aggression and butchering civilians; well that pretty much indicates to me that "Nazis are evil" is somewhere between useless and counterproductive as a method of education if your goal is "Never Again."

Nor is this the first time an illegal war of aggression was justified by comparing an enemy to the Nazis. It certainly seems that merely understanding that Nazis are bad does not inoculate you from supporting wars of aggression. Nor does it immunize against oppressing national minorities, (I particularly like Maziyar Bizhani's contribution to the genre).

"X is Evil" is a thought terminating cliche. It removes nuance and flattens your ability to understand why people are acting the way they are acting. The more you can understand someone's motivations, the more you can enter their skin and think the way they think, the better you can predict their actions and get inside their algorithms. We should seek to understand the villains so that we can prevent ourselves from becoming them, not to understand the victims so that we can accuse our opponents of oppressing us. Nobody has ever understood themselves as evil, and pretending they did will prevent us from holding ourselves or anyone else to "Never Again." {End Prior Reddit Comment}

To expand a little bit and move away from the Russia question, the way we teach the holocaust tends to privilege the "Jews are special victims" and "Nazis were whackjobs" stories; I think a better way to teach it is to focus on the theme that: Humans have a natural and indestructible tendency to draw in-group vs out-group distinctions, this can be done in any number of ways, and under stress these distinctions tend to become more important. The in-group will frequently use historical grievances (The Treaty of Versailles, or Class Oppression, or the Holocaust) to fuel hatred against the out-group. Watch out for anyone trying to fuel those kinds of tensions, watch out for anyone talking about how "your" people have always been abused and oppressed and held back from their rightful glory, realize when you yourself are taking your stress out on class/national/political/religious enemies.

The Holocaust wasn't a one-off, nor was it whacky or strange or the result of one man's incarnation of Wotan, it was simply an extreme form of a natural human tendency, that we all carry and need to watch out for to keep it from growing too extreme. That goes equally for Stalinist purges, for Cambodian killing fields, for the Great Leap Forward, for witch panics. The out-group can be the Jews, or the Christians, or the educated, or the rich, or the poor. The reflex itself is no different from how law students at my school would complain constantly, around finals, about undergrads in the law library. The undergrads didn't really bother anyone, but they weren't supposed to be there, and finals are stressful, they became an outlet for people to hate. We have to teach kids that Naziism/Fascism were very much encouraged and allowed to flourish by the Western allies as a counterweight to the (very real) threat of Communist expansionism and revolution. Talk more about the Spanish Civil War, and Petain's France, and the phenomenon of Death Squads from Indonesia and Rwanda to El Salvador and Vietnam.

TLDR: Don't teach that Nazis were extraordinary for being villains, or that Jews were extraordinary for being victims. We are all capable of being either in the right context, teach how we avoid the sins of the past in concept not in specificity.

Nazis were wrong and bad, but how they came about

There's a meme, "Then for no reason at all everyone voted for Hitler."

Doesn't how it came about, lead often to '30's culture wars and anti-semitism?

There's a lot of roots there, something bad happening in Germany/Central Europe was very much overdetermined and I'm just going to mention them and you can look deeper yourself if you're interested. I don't really see "Culture Wars" as a valid comparison, the anti-semitism is largely an incidental superstition in my view of history, a random occurrence as a result of the ideas that were "lying around" circa 1920s Germany.

-- Western support for Fascism as a counterweight to the Red Menace of Communism, which was real and did exist. Visible most clearly in Spain, where the intention of the Republican forces was by late in the war very much to form a Stalinist satellite of Moscow, which they seemed to prioritize even over winning the war. British and American diplomats very much did think it was "Mussolini and Fascism or Stalin and Communism" in Italy, and chose Mussolini as the horse to back. You really can't overemphasize just how real a threat Soviet Russia was to everything in Capitalism countries, the number of socialists in the proletariat and in the educated classes. Very real cultural, political, and violent efforts were made to marginalize communist forces in the west after 1945, it wouldn't be until the 1960s that the threat of violent revolution could be safely put on the backburner. If Soviet Russia didn't exist, or were not an enemy of the West, it is highly likely that Hitler would have been prevented from ever reaching power. Hitler was accommodated in his violations of treaty obligations, in large part because his government had to be propped up to prevent a Communist revolution in Germany, which would have threatened the West. As it is, Hitler was in many ways a gamble by the West that didn't pay off.

-- Soviet support for Germany to obtain needed industrial goods to allow the Soviets to fend off the west. Read this

-- Deeper history of the German speaking peoples, including particularly the history of Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire and its Hapsburg successor states, and their spread further abroad a commercial minority into Russian and Slavic lands. Millions of Germans in 1919 found themselves living, for the first time in thousands of years, under a non-German speaking sovereignty. The Sudetenland wasn't a made up crisis, it really was a German community with roots stretching back centuries. This tends to get ignored in Whig history tellings in England and the USA, where you learn that Charlemagne founded the HRE and then it went into decline, check in at Charles, and we get back to it at Napoleon or all the way at WWI. The Germans living outside the boundaries of Germany and Austria got a raw deal after WWI, going from respected local minority as part of a broader majority in their state, to despised foreign minority within nation-states trying to build themselves anew as Czech/Polish/etc. It should be noted that there were actually relatively few places in Europe in 1900 between the Dnieper and the Danube where the historical gentry, the peasantry, a supermajority of the proletariat, the urban commercial classes, and the government all spoke the same language. The world post 1945 where Polish People live in Poland and speak Polish is the result of multiple physical, cultural, and spiritual efforts of ethnic cleansing. Where this didn't happen in 1945 (Yugoslavia) it had to happen later, and the brutality was often paid out with interest. {Grievance Identity-Based Nationalism is a disease}

-- The financial results of WWI, read Tooze on this one. The balance of payments crises created by the massive loans made by American banks to British and French govenrments which could not hope to pay them back without German indemnity payments influence policy during this period significantly.

-- The destruction or discrediting of so much of the prior German leadership by the results of WWI. The aristocracy collectively abdicated with the Kaiser, the loss of huge numbers of promising young men from the upper classes left a big hole in leadership. The British, French and Americans experienced this as well; but their governments came out the other end of the war intact. Germany had to cope with creating a whole new system of government, the loss of prior commercial contacts that were once within German speaking polities or colonies thereof but were now foreign, simultaneously with having much of its natural leadership destroyed.

So yeah, throw all that in a pot and stir.

Thanks for the book recommendations. Thriftbooks has both, I've managed to nearly eliminate Amazon from my home.

Applause for that, my friend. When I buy new books rather than downloading e-books of classics, I nearly always try to call my local bookshop and if they don't have it they can order me a copy. I'd rather spend the extra money in this time in my life.

The result of learning the Holocaust only from the perspective of the victims is that we get everyone from the unvaccinated, to illegal immigrants, to <AEO claiming that their enemies are Nazis and about to put them into camps

At least in one of these cases, there is some evidence that their enemies wanted to put them in camps.

Forty-five percent (45%) of Democrats would favor governments requiring citizens to temporarily live in designated facilities or locations if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

As just one person who experienced education in the US, including about the Holocaust, I have no informed opinion on the whether education about the Holocaust in the US is really a meaningful contributor of the phenomenon you're talking about, but I do sense that something went wrong somewhere in the education system to lead to the phenomenon you're talking about. I read Night in middle school and watched Schindler's List during my free time (as a budding film/Steven Spielberg fan, not as a Holocaust/World War 2 enthusiast) around that age, and I was certainly hammered with messages as much as anyone about how evil the Nazis were. And certainly the evilness was taught as having to do with their specific ideology and their specific actions, but more generalized lessons were also taught about things like groupthink (not in that term; I didn't read 1984 until high school) and group-based guilt/resentment. One of the earliest films about Nazis I was shown at school The Wave (1981) in either late grade school or early middle school, which was presented as a true story about a US high school teacher conducting a social engineering experiment on his students to show how easy it would be for them to get swept up in some fascist-like movement - one that lacked any overt similarities to Nazism - due to social pressure. The lesson I got through my education on the subject was partly specifically about the Nazis, but mostly generally about social pressure and pitfalls of ideology. Like most people, I didn't think too much about this, but I had believed that this was the overall lesson most people in the US had gotten from the education about the Holocaust and the Nazis.

Of course, as anyone paying attention to the culture wars knows, one big movement/cluster of movements en vogue the past decade has been enforcing groupthink by explicitly advocating bullying people who step out of line, with that groupthink including explicitly condemning individuals due to their group-based guilt, while simultaneously deriding their opponents as Nazis and fascists. This completely caught me off guard and forced me to drastically update my model of how other Americans perceived the Holocaust. Given my own experience with education about the Holocaust, I didn't really think that the style/quality of the education about it in the US had been the issue. My guess had been that the draw of groupthink is just that seductive, but from your post, I'm wondering how much of it is that the education about the Holocaust in the US is mostly really simplistic and flawed. I feel like I can notice signs of such when thinking back with this additional context, but of course I can't discount a sort of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon with confirmation bias there.

I almost wonder what sort of curriculum/syllabus/media list you could put together to try and warn against groupthink and getting caught up in movements. I'd suggest Dune Messiah, but that novel might be weird without the context of the original Dune and it also doesn't exactly show how things went from Paul getting sweet revenge at the end of Dune to being associated with genocide by the start of Messiah. I almost hope that Villeneuve's second Dune movie shows that process happening.

It used to be kind of part of the standardized curriculum -- 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies; all screamed "beware of authority".

Not sure how much that's changed; my kid is "reading" (listening to books-on-tape in class) Fahrenheit 451 for junior high English, so that's something I guess -- his teacher seems quirky, so IDK how widespread that is.