Of Ignorance, Expertise, Demagoguery and Democracy

I have found myself reflecting on the deeply troubling uptick in Anti-Semitism incidents in this country and in several major European democracies in recent months. At one level, this phenomenon fits neatly with the state of social and economic anxiety of a share of American (and European) voters, for whom Jews may serve as one of many scapegoats for their perceived woes. But while a tiny minority of haters have long denied the Holocaust and sought to ascribe undeserved and ugly attributes and machinations to Jews, these have routinely been ignored and/or sharply criticized by leaders of both of our major parties and the lion’s share of our population. But as with so much else long settled in American politics, this orientation changed in the recent campaign, at least for one party and its current leader. It should surprise no one to learn that Donald Trump played on a share of Americans’ age-old willingness to discriminate against members of the Jewish religion, despite all that population has endured at the hand of blind hatred and scapegoating in the past, including the Holocaust. He also aimed apparently to draw a new group to this form of invidiousness by dint of his speechmaking and political commercials. Indeed, he released an advertisement near the close of the campaign that employed long-used tropes about a global financial establishment controlled by “bloodsuckers who have bled this country dry” that featured prominent Jews, including George Soros (an international financier), Janet Yellen (the Chairperson of America’s Federal Reserve Bank) and Lloyd Blankfein (the Chief Executive officer of Goldman-Sachs). This ad ran just days after he had offered the same arguments in his campaign speeches and tweeted an Anti-Semitic image of the Star of David atop a pile of cash.[1] He was reported at the time as being angry when his staff removed the latter mockery from public access. As is ever the case with him, Trump never disavowed his use of this discriminatory grotesqueness to mobilize and inflame potential voters.

So, it must be said, and Americans collectively must ever remind themselves, that the nation’s sitting President gained office in part by scapegoating not only Muslims and immigrants, but also Jews as somehow responsible for the effects of globalization and population change for which his own party was in good measure responsible, and whose negative effects his party had long deliberately elected not to address, except to blame those affected by them for not “working” hard enough to redress them. The irony is rich and deeply sad.

But as dismaying as the reality of Trump’s deliberate appeals to cruel smallness, “othering” and hate is, it must be coupled with another reality specific to Jews and the Holocaust: millions of Americans and Europeans of goodwill have less and less knowledge and understanding of the horrors that Hitler’s Nazi regime inflicted on Jews during World War II. The managing director of the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, Garance Reus-Deelder, has commented that while thousands continue to visit the location where Anne Frank penned her famous diary while in hiding from Nazi repression during World War II, many have little idea of why Frank is iconic or what her story reveals about the larger genocide to which she and much of her family eventually fell victim:

We find that, with the war being farther removed from all of us, especially for young people and people from outside of Europe, our visitors don’t always have sufficient prior knowledge of the Second World War to really grasp the meaning of Anne Frank and the people in hiding here.[2]

Likewise, Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has recently commented that while more than 500,000 students visit that haunting space annually, “attracting and sustaining their attention is an increasing challenge.”[3]  Yale University historian, Timothy Snyder, author of the recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, has similarly observed that

… the level of historical knowledge among people about the Holocaust is not very high. Remembering becomes a kind of circle—where you’re remembering to remember, but you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be remembering.[4]

Snyder, Reus-Deelder and Bloomfield’s comments suggest that vast ignorance provides

space for revisionists and Holocaust deniers, and for unscrupulous political leaders to play on voter fears and offer this population as a scapegoat. It also allows those individuals de facto to downplay the dangers for democracy of mobilization on the basis of false claims tied to hate-baiting scapegoating.  I say this because so many GOP leaders and voters have been willing to tolerate and even defend Trump’s indefensible race baiting and bigotry (if they have not outright endorsed it as appropriate), which behavior has continued into his presidency. For most, this seems to be an argument of ends justifying means, since GOP control and power should permit, in this view, long desired policy enactments and actions whose perceived relative import apparently justifies tolerating evil.

The combination of citizen ignorance, unscrupulous and placating partisan leaders and voter anxieties, and very human willingness to scapegoat those different from themselves now afoot in the U.S. appears sufficiently worrisome on its own merits. But, a new book by Tom Nichols, Americas Cult of Ignorance—And the Death of Expertise, has raised another and equally profound set of concerns that bear on this vital matter. As he has argued,

The death of expertise is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is fundamentally a rejection of science and dispassionate rationality, which are the foundations of modern civilization. It is a sign, as the art critic Robert Hughes once described late 20th century America, of “a polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics,” chronically ‘skeptical of authority’ and ‘prey to superstition.’ We have come full circle from a premodern age, in which folk wisdom filled unavoidable gaps in human knowledge, through a period of rapid development based heavily on specialization and expertise, and now to a postindustrial, information-oriented world where all citizens believe themselves to be experts on everything.[5]

The phenomenon to which Nichols points now finds hundreds of thousands of Americans unwilling to vaccinate their children on the basis of crackpot theories embraced too often by misled celebrities and ill-qualified academics alike, whose “expertise” they are willing to embrace over that of qualified scientific researchers. Many of these same voters are aware, too, that the person they elected President has persistently lied to them. They realize that he has proposed policies completely contrary to his promises and their expectations, and thereby abused their trust, but they continue to support him nonetheless. They do so often on the basis of completely unfounded contentions that others are “out to get him,” or that he will yet “stop those immigrants” from taking their jobs, itself a demonstrably false contention with no relationship to reality, served up for only one reason: to mobilize hate for political purposes.

The amalgamation of vast voter ignorance, social and economic anxiety, human beings’ willingness to hate others in their efforts to produce simple explanations of complex phenomena to make sense of their worlds, demagogic leaders, and a population’s increasing certainty that it can individually be the arbiter of all things, whether knowledgeable of those concerns or not, has created a crisis of identity and of governance in the United States. The President now daily lies with impunity, as do other political leaders, even as they scapegoat specific groups for the conditions that those they seek to mobilize now confront. So, it is, that we have seen the rapid rise of a visible and unapologetic Anti-Semitism once again in this nation with the complicity and support of the nation’s chief executive. So, it is, too, that so many citizens reject reason and fact for lies and flimflam and do so willfully, convinced that those who are arguing otherwise are “elites” who they may rightly despise, and, in any case, who they believe are no better placed than they are to make such judgments.

The consequences of this juxtaposition of major trends has produced a squalid politics in which the only arbiter is whether one “wins” power and can reward political supporters, not necessarily voters, with material benefits. Truth and expertise are daily mocked in this cauldron of willful ignorance. The President is serving as a chief purveyor of lies as this scabrous and enervating understanding of fact and knowledge daily unwinds possibilities for civil and prudential dialogue. There can only be one response to this ongoing and terrible trial for self- governance: persistent vigilance, unremitting attempts to model and engage in civilized behavior and constant revelations of the falsity of the lies now being pressed without reserve or apology by the President and his entourage. Friends of self-governance must deepen their efforts to inform those most anxious of the facts of their situation, and of the means by which their concerns might collectively be addressed without sacrificing the civil and human rights of any group of Americans. Fair-minded citizens should be especially attentive in these efforts to ensuring the civil rights of this nation’s Jews, Muslims and immigrants, who have repeatedly and cruelly been falsely vilified by a malignant and mean-spirited demagogue, with the complicity of his Party’s leadership.

 

Notes

[1] Milbank, Dana, “Anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of the Trump’s campaign. It’s the melody,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/anti-semitism-is-no-longer-an-undertone-of-trumps-campaign-its-the-melody/2016/11/07/b1ad6e22-a50a-11e6-8042-f4d111c862d1_story.html?utm_term=.c0c99c223064 Accessed, April 2, 2017.

[2] Siegel, Nina, “Anne Frank Who? Museums Combat Ignorance about the Holocaust,” The New York Times, March 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/anne-frank-house-anti-semitism.html?_r=0 Accessed March 21, 2017.

[3] Siegel, “Anne Frank Who?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/anne-frank-house-anti-semitism.html?_r=0

[4] Siegel, “Anne Frank Who?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/anne-frank-house-anti-semitism.html?_r=0

[5] Nichols, Tom. “America’s Cult of Ignorance—And the Death of Expertise,” The Daily Beast, April 1, 2017, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/01/america-s-cult-of-ignorance.html Accessed April 2, 2017.