The Puzzle of Malignant Social Fantasies

            Three interrelated items caught my attention in recent days. First, I received a fund-raising letter from the United States Holocaust Museum (USHM). Letters from all manner of organizations seeking support fill my mailbox daily, so receipt of this correspondence was hardly noteworthy in that respect. Instead, I was struck afresh that the Museum is a United States government entity. Were we not living in a neoliberal era with Congress insisting that the institution raise a substantial share of its own funds from private donors in lieu of tax dollars, one might have imagined a public institution would not be soliciting donations. Nevertheless USHM’s budget allocation and legislative accountability claims are such that it has been given no choice but to do so. Like the Smithsonian Institution and many other nominally public organizations, including my own university, the Holocaust Museum must raise a significant share of its needed expenditures each year despite its “public” status.

            This said, I also noted the following statement in the institution’s letter, written by French author, artist and Holocaust survivor Simon Jeruchim:

At a time when Holocaust denial is surging worldwide, including in the very lands where it occurred, Holocaust evidence and artifacts—like these drawings— (reproductions were enclosed) stand as a powerful counter to those who say it never happened.

            This specific observation caused me to ask what, precisely, “deniers” argue and to ponder why it is they would do so, as well as why their numbers would be growing. As I explored various sources concerning these questions, I learned two notable things. First, as an empirical proposition, most of those who argue the Holocaust did not occur are profoundly anti-Semitic. Indeed, many of these individuals, although not all, contend that Jews developed claims regarding that historically unprecedented effort as a grand conspiracy to benefit their population. Just how this assumed scheme benefits Jews is never really adequately explained. I found myself wondering what would cause one to adopt this stance in the face of incontrovertible proof to the contrary, including statements by the Nazi leaders responsible for the killings.

            Speaking of that evidence, I discovered as I read that when General George Patton, Commander, Third U. S. Army, and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, visited the newly liberated internment camp at Gotha in April 1945, Patton would not enter one room for fear he would become sick in front of his troops. Eisenhower investigated the camp and called for extensive documentation of it, however, and did so mindfully, wishing to ensure that all possible evidence be gathered as a bulwark against potential future claims that the camps were fictive Allied propaganda. Here is how he put the matter in a letter to General George C. Marshall, dated April 12, 1945:

The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any time experienced an equal sense of shock. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were ‘just propaganda.’

            The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they [there] were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so (Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 1948, pp. 409-410).

            Somehow Eisenhower sensed that some people might later deny the radical evil of the Holocaust and he made every effort to ensure documentation of its horrors to prevent the success of such claims. The question remains, however, despite Eisenhower’s prescience, why do some deny the Shoah today?

            Perhaps the third item that caught my attention this week provides a clue, a new biography of Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News. In an essay reviewing Gabriel Sherman’s volume in the current New York Review of Books (April 3, 2014), Steve Coll reports that the author argues that Ailes has built a cable channel for a largely aging white male viewership that now earns its parent corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, approximately $1 billion in profits each year—a 50 percent profit margin—by offering a personal, false and paranoiac vision of America:

At seventy-two years old, wealthy and isolated, the Fox chief had apparently reached the conclusion that President Obama was driving the United States to ruin. Ailes therefore insisted that Fox News promote an idiosyncratic narrative of America in-danger. In this story, the country was beset by runaway government power, rising racial conflict, hostility toward Christianity, and out-of-control immigration.

            While not morally equivalent, what Holocaust deniers and avid devotees of Ailes’ dark views have in common is their willingness to believe fantastical claims for which there is no evidence. Those arguing the Shoah did not occur and Ailes’ audience are willing to suspend disbelief and to accept paranoiac and conspiratorial visions and explanations of events and trends affecting them. There is no proof President Obama or immigrants are driving the nation to ruin and there is no substantiation for suggesting that the Nazis never murdered 6 million Jews. The stance of the anti-Semites, who are the bulk of Holocaust deniers, seems to be rooted in a credulous willingness to hate an “other” on the basis of stereotypes and fables that assign that group responsibility for all manner of imagined ills. The position of those willing to believe the dyspeptic Ailes’ vision of the nation seems, too, to rest in a readiness to hate and to blame those reviled for a variety of alleged fears. Indeed, in both populations this willingness to adopt a deeply cruel and conspiratorial understanding seems ultimately to be constructed on utterly unfounded claims that substitute for the actual concerns vexing these individuals. Holocaust deniers target Jews for hate as a means to “explain” their own life prospects and standing. Ailes and those who have adopted his repulsive perspective blame the President of a different color, immigrants (many of whom also have a different complexion) and alleged revilers of the Christian faith for their fears. To adopt these positions apparently allows both groups to make sense of concerns that otherwise are difficult to address in their worldviews, while also providing each group “others” whom they may feel superior to and despise.

            In short, Holocaust deniers and today’s devoted supporters of Fox News both exhibit the apparently innate human capability to “other” viciously, regardless of the groundlessness of the assertions underpinning those claims. The lesson the Ailes example teaches is that entrepreneurs—read Rupert Murdoch in this instance—are willing to exploit this human penchant for profit. The broad political consequences of their efforts are a side product of their ongoing quest for riches. Deniers, meanwhile, force the analyst to confront the apparently limitless capacity of human beings blindly to hate. Both populations remind friends of democracy just how difficult it may be to sustain freedom when those empowered with keeping that flame burning so often evidence deeply powerful inclinations to extinguish it, and on rationales not linked to facts, but to fears, prejudices and brutish imaginings. Democracy poses a profound paradox: The same people who have so often demonstrated unbounded potential for just such behavior must discipline human capacity for evil, if self-governance is to survive.