Easy fascism and romance novels

One thing that is hard for my students to understand is that fascism was (and is) much more normal and widespread than you might think. It appeals to certain surprisingly widespread notions, especially that some people are simply born to be leaders (because of their blood) and we should put all political power in the hands of one of those people.

Elsewhere I’ve written about antisemitism and inter-war thrillers, and here I’ll just give some examples from a fairly banal inter-war romance, D.E. Stevenson’s The Baker’s Daughter (1938).

I liked Stevenson’s Miss Buncle series, so I have nothing against the author (in fact, I know nothing about the author), and my point isn’t that Stevenson is bad–it’s about how normal various notions were that were useful to fascism.

The novel concerns a charming young woman who impulsively decides to keep house for a woman and her artist husband. Sue Pringle is a thoroughly attractive protagonist, with whom the reader is supposed to identify, and she’s a Franco supporter (mentioned twice), her drifting brother is transformed by joining the Army, and the novel completely endorses the notion of the purity of race/entitlement.

(Spoiler alert–but if you haven’t figured this out by about page 29, you don’t know the romance genre)

Sue and the artist fall in love, but there appears to be a problem that in that he runs among the elite, and she is descended from shopkeepers. No, it isn’t a problem! She is the illegitimate daughter of an upper class Admiral!

That’s a common plot point in early 20th century and late 19th century novels, so common that the importance of it can go un-noticed–she was raised by a shopkeeper, as was her mother. The rightness of her marrying into the upper class is settled by blood. A racist notion.

A lot of novels look as though they are critiquing racist notions about the heritability of aristocratic values by showing that an apparently “common” person can have better values than (or just as good as) the elite, but, by the moment of reveal when the hero/ine turns out to have the right blood, they are reinforcing the notions that “blood will tell.”

And then there’s this–when the hero is painting her:

“For instance, thought Darnay [the hero], we may not admire the golden skin and slant eyes of the pure Mongol, but who can dare to say that the Mongol has no beauty of his own? If we do not believe that purity of race is beauty then we deny God and God’s hand in our making–in the making of the races of the world.” (71)

That wasn’t 1938 mainstream anthropology, by the way. Mainstream anthropology was so critical of the notion of race (and especially purity of race) by the teens that racists had to form a new discipline (eugenics). Even biology had a lot of critiques of the notion of race. This was eugenics, not anthropology, and candy to Nazis, American segregationists, and fascists of various stripes.

I’m not saying that Stevenson was a fascist, or that people who like the book are fascists and racist and evil. I’m saying that the basic premises of fascism were (and are) so widespread that they were/are un-noticed.

A racist fascist reading this book would find it confirming–someone neither racist nor fascist would probably not even notice those aspects of the book. Ideology is always about the narratives we tell about causation–what causes some people to be better than others? If we say that blood causes some people to be better than others, then we will be comfortable with racist policies. If someone is in a world in which the dominant narratives all say it’s about blood, that person is likely to find racist policies normal and unremarkable.

Persuasion, as Kenneth Burke said, is about repetition. As Paul Ricoeur said, is about narrative–the stories we tell.

No one will be suddenly converted to racist/fascist ideologies by reading this charming romance. That isn’t my point. What’s important about this book is that it isn’t important. It’s just a romance.

[Image from here: https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/collins-white-circle-in-australia/fn-stevenson-miss-bun-the-bakers-daughter/]

It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.


[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

Texts for analysis in principles of rhetoric class

I know that folks like to know what other people are assigning as objects of analysis, and so I thought I’d post mine. This is a sophomore/junior level course. Ones I’ve used before have an explanation as to why they’re weird–I may not have time to write that explanation for the rest (and may not need it).

  • Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice (this is available on-line, but off of a really nasty white supremacist site—if you’d rather not use a site like that, then you can photocopy sections from my copy). I teach this book in another class, and it’s always mentioned as the most offensive reading of the semester (and that’s a class in which we read Mein Kampf). It’s awful. Although written in 1948, Bilbo shamelessly uses the same texts that were so influential on the Nazis in order to defend segregation and argue for sending African Americans “back” to Africa. You’ll hate the book (as you should). It’s impossible to tell how much impact (if any) the book had in its time, but Bilbo’s message was generally well-received in his home state of Mississippi. It’s a contradictory and incoherent text (drawing on strict creationism and evolution), but many parts of his argument were very common (you’ll see bits of the same argument in the lower court decisions on anti-miscegenation statutes). I don’t know what to make of this book.
  • James Arthur Ray’s Harmonic Wealth (this one is harder than it might look at first, as you are fairly close to the audience). Ray bills himself as a “motivational speaker” (he’s featured in The Secret), and was charging a lot of money for day- and weekend-long workshops on success (which is more than a little ironic, as being a motivational speaker is the only thing at which he’s succeeded—he actually has a history of failing badly at making money any other way). He’s now famous for having been held responsible for the deaths of people during his sweat lodge ceremony.

    During the trial, it came out that Ray’s syncretic workshops consisted of things he’d lifted from other motivational speakers, all of whom themselves were borrowing randomly from various traditions. And, of course, except for being a motivational speaker, he wasn’t a particular successful person. How does he persuade people to overlook the very serious and obvious problems with his message? Students have found it helpful to look at his use of “science”—those of you with some knowledge of physics will find this a bizarre but kind of fun book (it’s very bad science). Why invoke science at all?

  • A similar puzzle is presented by the success of David Lereah’s book Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust—And How You Can Profit from It, which was rereleased in 2008 (immediately prior to the housing market crash). Lereah had already published a book with a similar argument—that this booming economy is not a bubble, although every reasonable assessment says it is—in regard to the dotcom bubble (The Rules for Growing Rich: Making Money in the New Information Economy) immediately prior to that bubble popping. Despite that track record, Lereah’s book was tremendously popular. Is Lereah’s success explained rhetorically? (This is a particularly good choice for students who are strong in economics.)
  • Also in the realm of self-help: a terrible (and misogynist) website about how to date younger women. This page is especially interesting (and offensive) http://steelballs.com/understand_her_chapter-2/
  • The 1931 ACLU Report on the Scottsboro Trial. http://famous-trials.com/scottsboroboys/2344-firsttrial-2
  • Opening statements from one of the two trials of the West Memphis Three. http://famous-trials.com/westmemphis/2243-transcripts
  • Frederick Douglass’ 1847 “The Right to Criticize American Institutions” http://www.frederick-douglass-heritage.org/the-right-to-criticize-american-institutions/
  • NSC-68 (https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68.htm) , “The report was a group effort, created with input from the Defense Department, the State Department, the CIA, and other interested agencies; NSC-68 formed the basis for America’s Cold War policy for the next two decades.” http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-truman-receives-nsc-68
  • An anti-fascist movie from 1947 warning against us v. them rhetoric. https://archive.org/details/DontBeaS1947
  • Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony regarding Clarence Thomas http://www.emersonkent.com/speeches/testimony_hill.htm
  • An exchange with McCarthy during the hearings about communists in the military. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/welch-mccarthy.html
  • Jeff Hoover’s resignation speech after payoff rumors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bUKLsS2R0s
  • Roy Moore’s speech about the accusations against him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuEqyQC7ne4
  • William Tam’s testimony in the Proposition 8 trial. (I’d suggest starting around 1914, and going at least as far as 1968)  http://kenjiyoshino.com/KY/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Perry_Volume_8_1742_2008.pdf
  • Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of the Single Story” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story or her 2012 TedexEuston talk “We Should All Be Feminists” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists
  • Weather Underground’s 1974 Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (sds-1960s.org/PrairieFire-reprint.pdf) Here’s a fairly sympathetic explanation of the pamphlet: https://www.counterpunch.org/2004/07/24/the-weather-underground-s-prairie-fire-statement-thirty-years-on/. Most students aren’t very sympathetic (and I’m not convinced it was well-received by “the Left” as Jacbos says)—it’s pretty boring. This pamphlet is easier to write about if you don’t like it.
  • Do a rhetorical analysis of David Duke’s My Awakening. (Yes, you’ll have to read—or at least skim–the book, and it’s long and tedious and really, really offensive.) If you’d like, you can focus on the reviews of it on amazon. The book is awful, yet is ranked an average of 4.5 stars. (If you want to experiment, try writing a negative review of the book and then see what happens.) How do the reviews violate what one might expect them to be? What can one infer about their own understanding of their audience? To what extent are the reviews rhetorically savvy?
  • The debate over either the 1935 (Costigan-Wagner) or 1938 (Wagner-Van Nuys) antilynching bills. Pick at least one rhetor in favor of the legislation and at least two that are opposed to it. You should pick at least two figures who have long speeches, or several figures with short speeches but similar rhetorical strategies.
  • The “Haymarket Trial” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/haymarket/haymarket.html. In Chicago in 1886, police charged a pro-labor rally, and started a riot in which several police officers were shot (probably by other police officers). Yet, labor leaders were charged with the killing of a police officer, and were convicted. Do rhetorical concepts explain the success of the prosecution case? You’ll need to keep in mind that you have to assess the case on the basis of what was known at the time, not what we know now. What defense claims does the prosecution refute? What claims does the prosecution ignore?
  • Rod Blagojevich and Richard Nixon (“Checker’s speech”) both found themselves in strikingly similar positions—having used their political power to get money out of people. Both engaged in apologia; but Nixon’s worked and Blagojevich’s didn’t. Does rhetorical analysis enable you to explain those different outcomes? Was it a question of Nixon having used savvier rhetorical strategies? Or was the audience different?
  • The opening statements from the trial of Dan White. http://www.famous-trials.com/danwhite


Excerpts from William Shirer’s This is Berlin (1999)

William Shirer was a correspondent in Germany in 1939 and 1940. Below are some excerpts from his broadcasts.

9/19/38. “Isn’t it wonderful,” I’ve been told a hundred times today by scores of people who did not hide their sense of relief. “Isn’t it wonderful. There’s to be no war. We’re going to have peace.”

[….] Not only National Socialist Party members, but others. They all felt that Chancellor Hitler had brought them undoubtedly the greatest victory of his career. “And mind you,” a German newspaperman said to me tonight. “It’s a bloodless victory.”

[….] “Like the occupation of the Rhine. Like the Anschluss with Austria. Done peacefully, without war.” I’ve heard these phrases a dozen times today. (15)

4/23/39.  [His perception of what the majority of Germans believe]

First, that Great Britain, backed by Daladier, Stalin and Roosevelt, is forging an encirclement of German designed to crush the Reich.

Secondly, that Hitler is right if, profiting by the lessons of 1914, he desires to break that encirclement before it is successfully completed.

Thirdly, that eastern and south-eastern Europe is a natural part of Germany’s Lebensraum—or space necessary for its existence—and that neither Britain nor anyone else, including America, has any right to interfere with Germany’s action there.

Fourthly, that Hitler, whether they like him or not, will get what he wants in eastern Europe, and get it—as he got Czechoslovakia at Munich—without a war.

Fifthly, that there will therefore be no war, and that they—the German people at any rate—do not want war. And that war can only come if the “encirclement powers”, jealous of Germany’s success, attack the Reich, in which case they will gladly fight, and this time, they say, Germany will win.

And sixthly, the mass of the German people, whatever they thought of Hitler before, or even though they still do not like many aspects of the regime, do feel that he has outsmarted the “foreign tyrants”, as they call them, who were trying to keep Germany down, and that he has restored it to its proper place in the world. And that without a single shot being fired, nor the life of one German soldier sacrificed. (42)

10/6/39. At a press conference in the Wilhelmstrasse tonight, one skeptical newspaperman asked how the Western Powers would be assured that Herr Hitler had no further demands, since that had been said before. The answer was that only now are the real foundations for a lasting peace in the interests of all there. (107)

10/8/39. Germany waits—and I must say waits hopefully—for the answer of Paris and London to what the Nazis consider was a very generous peace offer from Herr Hitler. (108)

11/19/39. [T]he papers keep repeating what Great Britain would do to Germany and Germans in case of victory. In a front-page editorial this morning the Volkischer Beobachter, official Nazi organ, tells its readers that England’s aim is not only the destruction of Germany, but the enslavement of the German people. (139)

12/30/39. Herr Hitler tells people in this New Year’s proclamation that what he terms “the Jewish international capitalism in league with the reactionaries” is really responsible for this war. Says he, and I quote, “The German people did not want this war. I tried up to the last minute to keep peace with England…But the Jewish and reactionary warmongers waited for this minute to carry out their plans to destroy Germany. These war-gentlemen wanted the war, and now they’ll get it.” (173)

1/9/40. Dr. Robert Ley, one of the most important members of the Nazi regime, states it clearly in the Angriff tonight. Says he: “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany. How low must the English people have fallen to have had as war ministers a parasitical and profiteering Jew of the worst kind… England is spiritually, politically and economically at one with the Jews…For us, England and the Jews remain the common foe…Germany has won the first battle. Hore-Belisha has fallen.” (181-2)

2/25-26/40. The Montag, for instance, headlines the speech GERMANY WILL BREAK THE TERROR OF THE WORLD PLUTOCRACY. A struggle of Germany to free itself from the terror of Britain and France. A struggle against world-plutocracy and the world-Jews for freedom. That’s the way this war is being presented to the people of Germany. (204)

4/9/40. The German government, to use the term of an official proclamation issued in Berlin, has “taken over the protection and Denmark and Norway for the duration of the war.” (237) [The official propaganda was that England was about to invade them.]

The German occupation of Norway and Denmark, which the German newspapers tell us was done to safeguard their freedom and security…(239)

4/10/40. To give you an idea of the state of mind in Berlin today, let me cite the German press. Its front-pages glorify today’s achievements of the German army and tell the readers that Germany today, as the Nachtausgabe says, has merely taken steps “to safeguard the freedom and security of Norway and Denmark”. The same paper blames England and France for what happened. The Borsen Zeitung says, “England goes cold-bloodedly over the dead bodies of the small peoples. Germany protects the weak states from the English highway robbers.” And the same paper concludes, “Norway ought to see the righteousness of Germany’s action which was taken to ensure the freedom of the Norwegian people.” (241)

5/6/40. The German press continues to devote most of its headlines to warning that the British are about to spread war by aggressive action in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans, even in Spain. Observers here still wonder what is back of this press campaign, remembering that we had a very similar one in regard to Scandinavia six weeks ago. (263)

5/10/40. At a hastily convoked press conference at the Foreign Office at 8 a.m., Herr von Ribbentrop read to us the memorandum in which Germany explains why she marched into the two Low Countries. The argument, summed up, is that Britain and France were about to attack Germany through the two little countries, and that Germany therefore deems it necessary to send in its own troops to safeguard the neutrality of Belgium and Holland. The memorandum also blames the two countries for not having maintained a really neutral attitude. Belgium, for instance, is blamed for having built its fortifications against Germany, not against France, though it would seem that the Belgians this morning should be glad they did. (268)

5/15/40. Dr. Ley, one of Herr Hitler’s chief lieutenants, writes in the Angriff tonight: “Hitler brought Germany to reason and made us happy. We’re convinced we will now bring Europe to reason and make it happy. That’s his God-given mission.” (277)

6/1/40. Press attacks on France continue. Said a German radio commentator: “There can be no peace in Europe until the Negro-ized and Jew-ized people of the plutocrat Reynaud are taught with a sharp sword that no crime goes unpunished.” (306)

6/2/40. As to the invasion of Holland and Belgium, most Germans you meet believe the justification given by the government and the army—namely, that the Allies would have attacked if the Germans hadn’t beaten them to it. Thus the German move is always referred to in the press as the “counter-thrust”. Exactly the same explanation was given for the Norwegian campaign and, I think, accepted by the great majority of people. One must remember that when Germany went into Poland last September, the official communiques described it as a “counter-attack”. (309)

7/19/40. In other words, Hitler offers peace to Britain. On what terms, he does not say. But one thing is evident. The German people will now follow him as never before, for they will say: He offered England peace and no strings attached to it. He said he saw no reason for going on with the war. If the war goes on, it’s England’s fault. That’s what the German people will say. (355)

8/1/40. Nearly every day now one or the other of the German newspapers gives us a glimpse into the New Europe which the Third Reich is now planning for this continent as soon as the war is over. Today Dr. Ernst Timm, writing in the Borsen Zeitung, gives us a further glimpse.

The last result of nationalism in Europe, he says, was the union of all Germans in one nation. The next phase in Europe will be known by what he terms “European Responsibility”, a responsibility, he adds, which has been taken over by Germany. He finds three points in his new conception of Europe.

  1. Only a nation in Europe which is conscious of its European responsibility has a right to take part in the new reconstruction. A people like the French, which he says has become mixed with Negroes and Jews, has no right to European leadership.
  2. Only peoples who through their greatness and their life-force are capable of European contributions have the right to self-responsible action.
  3. The European leader-peoples, as he puts it, carry the responsibility not only for their own national fate, but also for that of the smaller peoples who are placed in their Lebensraum—or living space. (367)




Demagoguery and scapegoating

I want to start with an interesting puzzle:

Republicans control Congress, the Supreme Court, now the Presidency; Republicans have a trifecta in 26 states, and the most popular cable news show is a tried-and-true propaganda outfit for Republican candidates and agenda.  Fifty-six percent of America’s richest families are GOP donors. By any reasonable measure, the GOP is the establishment.

The puzzle is that the rhetoric surrounding voting Republican is one of resistance to the establishment—the GOP has successfully framed itself as the anti-establishment party.  And they have managed to blame all problems on Democrats (even in absurd cases and in the face of all reasonable evidence). —the out-of-power party.[1] Now that they have complete control of the Federal government, and still can’t come through on their promises, they have a new narrative, the Deep State conspiracy  —so that it’s still liberals who are the source of all of our problems. That’s interesting. How are they managing that rhetorical sleight of hand?

There are various reasons, with three I want to mention here. The first is the one I won’t talk about at any length now, and it’s lay political theory. The dominant lay political theory is that the solutions to all political problems are obvious to any reasonable person—no political disagreement involves two or more people of intelligence and good faith.  The government doesn’t pursue those obvious solutions for various nefarious reasons—they know what they should do, but they don’t follow that course of action because of “special interests” (special interests being “anyone other than my in-group”).

The second is informational enclaves—that large swaths of Americans inhabit worlds impervious to accurate representations of out-group arguments (not just people on the right, and not just restricted to “political” issues). It isn’t just that these worlds involve the chanting of various assertions; it’s also that these enclaves engage in inoculation (a concept that really should be more prominent in rhetoric and comp). Inoculation works by giving people a weak form of an out-group ideology or political agenda—people sincerely believe they don’t need to listen to people who disagree because they think they already know the argument. Inoculation works because so many people believe that the first goal in listening to someone (or reading) is finding cues of identity group membership—if the rhetor can be identified as out-group, then everything they say can be rejected as “biased.” (I think this is worsened by how we teach “bias” in fyc classes, since we teach it as social group membership.)

Not all instances of inoculation are demagoguery, but demagoguery always involves inoculation. And the dominant form of discourse in those worlds is demagoguery, and that’s the third factor I want to talk about.

My argument about demagoguery is fairly straightforward—demagoguery is most effectively thought of as a way of arguing, not a rhetoric produced by a kind of person. It isn’t necessarily a cancer on the body politic, or a political evil. Thinking about demagogues and not demagoguery and thinking about demagoguery as a growth to be excised unintentionally ends up endorsing the very view of public discourse that is so problematically at the center of demagoguery: that political issues can be reduced to identity, and that they are solved through elimination. And that’s demagoguery.

I’ve suggested we think of demagoguery as:

Demagoguery is a polarizing discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the outgroup should be punished/scapegoated for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stases: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination).     

Demagoguery depoliticizes political discourse by making all issues questions of identity (which amounts to in-group loyalty), it insists that all of our problems are caused by this group—the only failing of the in-group is insufficient will in pursuing a policy of purity.

I began with a description of something odd about Republican rhetoric—and I want to be clear, I’m not saying that the disingenuousness of Republican rhetoric (“we’re the victims here”) means Republicans are bad people, or the Republican political agenda should be dismissed on the grounds that they have disingenuous rhetoric. Republican policies should be debated on their merits and demerits as policies. I’m saying that advocates of the Republican political agenda need to defend that agenda with policy rhetoric. So should every other advocate of a political agenda. Political argument should be arguments about policies.

If we say the problem is that Republicans are demagogues, the implied solution is to purify our community of Republicans—and that’s demagoguery. If we say their rhetoric is demagogic, we are asking them to argue differently.

Saying that Republican policies are bad because Republican media engage in demagoguery is still not deliberating about policies; it’s arguing about who is the disease of the body politic. Jeremy Engels, who has identified a similar (but not identical) phenomenon with what he calls a “politics of resentment” points out that “Nixon argued that war protestors, and not the war itself, was the problem” (96) and that this “rhetoric was brilliant because [Nixon] subverted the democratic possibilities of resentment by redefining the conflict at the heart of democracy” (101).

As Kenneth Burke famously said in his prescient analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric, nothing unifies as much as a common enemy, and a common enemy is useful for enhancing nationalism. Anthony Marx’s recent book persuasively argues that nationalism—that is, a centralized allegiance—can’t be dictated top-down, but elites can employ “an indirect method for channeling popular loyalty, bringing religious passions and identities thus consolidated into the service of absolutism” (74). Marx says, “To consolidate their power and make governance possible and effective, elites embraced rising mass passions by encoding discriminatory laws enforcing those passions and cohering their supporters” (74). So, it’s Burke’s unification through division.

Marx’s narrative of the pre-Enlightenment founding of nationalism emphasizes the crucial role of religious passion in this foundation, which he argues fits the characteristics of what is now often inaccurately called “ethnic nationalism” (what the clash of cultures people present as an impaired and non-Western kind of nationalism). Thus, the “ethnic” versus “civic” nationalism operates by occluding Western nationalism’s reliance on religious/ethnic exclusion.

And I’d suggest that’s what we’re seeing now. I think it can be invisible to a lot of people the way that the policy arguments of the United States have been refit into an eschatological narrative. It is simply a given in some informational enclaves (including Fox News) that being Christian means being Republican, a sloppy and entirely false equation that enables the mobilizing of religious passion (and there are few passions stronger) in service of disenfranchising, excluding, or exterminating the scapegoated out-group. (And, as with the muddled way “Muslim” is troped as a race, in this enclave “Christian” is “white” thus non-Christians must not be white.)

Anthony Marx points out that groups that have relied on this process of cohesion through exclusion don’t recognize their reliance on exclusion because they renarrate their own history as one of inclusion (168). That ahistoric narrative of inclusion enables a useful amnesia about the violent and exclusive bases of nationalism. This narrative of inclusion is strengthened in several ways, including the faux diversity of seeing oneself as inclusive because one’s in-group doesn’t exclude as much as it could– having a Jew lawyer, a gay “friend,” a Catholic colleague. Because the initial violence is hidden, the current violence is framed as a new and necessary exception, and not a continuation of practice.

The violence is often legitimated through hyperbole, and there is a paradox in demagogic rhetoric created by its reliance on hyperbole. Demagoguery is about performing in-group loyalty—to persuade voters that I am the most passionate embodiment of our group, it’s useful if I’m impractical, irrational, and hyperbolic. My willingness to make absurd claims and commit myself to policies that probably won’t work shows just how loyal I am. Initially, when a rhetor does this, they want someone else to stand up and stop the community from enacting that impractical policy. But that isn’t generally what happens. If I say that the in-group needs to go to war with squirrels, then the people on whom I’ve dumped the rhetorical responsibility of actually deliberating pragmatically now have to argue that we aren’t capable of going to war with the squirrels (or of winning, or paying for the war, or something else that suggests we are flawed as a group). They look disloyal and less passionate about the in-group than I do. If Chester Burnette is running against me, he needs to match my hyperbole, so he’ll have to advocate either my policy or something even more impractical. In cultures of demagoguery, communities end up pursuing policies that were initially advocated just as performance of in-group loyalty.

There’s another paradox, and it’s a concerning one. The paradox of social control through demagoguery is that if it’s effective there is no longer a scapegoat to blame—proslavery scapegoating of abolitionists ensured that there was no antislavery discourse in slave state political deliberations. So, on whom could they blame slave resistance? They couldn’t acknowledge that it was the consequence of slavery, and then you get a rhetoric of conspiracy. [2] Conspiracy rhetoric, when it’s successful, leads to (or legitimates) policies of extraordinary surveillance—since the ability of the out-group to cause so many problems although they’ve been silenced and excluded shows a degree of nefariousness that requires extraordinary policies.

And that’s why this “deep state” rhetoric worries me. The ineffectiveness of an interventionist bullying foreign policy, neoliberal economic policies, and climate change denial should be up for argument—we should be having policy arguments about those policies. Their failure should be the moment for reconsideration. If their failures are instead blamed on a nonfalsifiable narrative about a deep conspiracy, then the next step will be debating the degree of surveillance and exclusion of the scapegoated group.

When a culture’s normal rhetorical practice is demagoguery, then there are demagogues in power—because there are demagogues everywhere, because demagoguery becomes the most profitable and cunning choice. When demagoguery is normalized, then demagogues arise.

So, instead of talking about who is or is not a demagogue, I think we should worry about when and how demagoguery gets normalized.


[1] I’m not puzzled or outraged that they blame all their problems on Democrats—all political parties do that. I’m intrigued that it’s effective.

[2] Another good example of this maneuver is what Stalin did when his agricultural policies were disastrous. Since the whole argument for the Soviet system was that central planning was more rational, he couldn’t admit that they had screwed up—so he invented (and probably sincerely believed) a conspiracy on the part of counter-revolutionaries.

Hitler and Rhetoric

As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy says, anyone looking at the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust is likely to wonder: “How was it possible for a nation as sophisticated as Germany to regress in the way that it did, for Hitler and the Nazis to enlist an entire people, willingly or otherwise, into a crusade of extermination that would kill anonymous millions?” (1) The conventional answer is to attribute tremendous rhetorical power to Adolf Hitler. Kenneth Burke calls Hitler “a man who swung a great deal of people into his wake” (“Rhetoric” 191). William Shirer, who was an American correspondent in Germany in the 30s, describes that, listening to a speech he knew was nonsense, “was again fascinated by [Hitler’s] oratory, and how by his use of it he was able to impose his outlandish ideas on his audience” (131). Shirer says Hitler “appeared able to swing his German hearers into any mood he wished” (128). Shirer is clear that Hitler owed his power to his rhetoric: “his eloquence, his astonishing ability to move a German audience by speech, that more than anything else had swept him from oblivion to power as dictator and seemed likely to keep him there” (127).

Scholars don’t necessarily agree, however. Ian Kershaw says, “Hitler alone, however important his role, is not enough to explain the extraordinary lurch of a society, relatively non-violent before 1914, into ever more radical brutality and such a frenzy of destruction” (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution 347). While Hitler’s personal views were important, and neither the Holocaust nor war would have happened without his personal fanaticism and charisma, they weren’t all that was necessary: “Concentrating on Hitler’s personal worldview, no matter how fanatically he was inspired and motivated by it, cannot readily serve to explain why a society, which hardly shared the Arcanum of Hitler’s “philosophy,” gave him such growing support from 1929 on—in proportions that rose with astonishing rapidity. Nor can it explain why, from 1933 on, the non-Nationalist Socialist élites were prepared to play more and more into his hands in the process of “cumulative radicalization.”” (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution 57)

In other words, Hitler’s followers were  not passive automatons controlled by Hitler’s rhetorical magic. So, how powerful was that rhetoric?

The answer to that question is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests for several reasons. First, while Hitler was quick to use new technologies, including ones of travel, most of the Nazi rhetoric consumed by converts wasn’t by Hitler. People like Adolf Eichmann talk about being persuaded by other speakers, pamphlets, even books.

Second, no one claims that Hitler was a creative or inventive ideologue: “Hitler was not an originator but a serial plagiarist” (O’Shaughnessy 24). Joachim Fest said Hitler’s beliefs were the “sum of the clichés current in Vienna at the turn of the century” (qtd. in Gregor, 2), and Gregor says, “Neither can one claim that Hitler was an original thinker. There is little in his writings or speeches that we cannot find in the penny pamphlets of pre-1914 Vienna where he began to form his political views. His racial anti-Semitism rehearses the familiar slogans of many on the pre-war right. His visions of German expansion echo the ideas of the more extreme wing of the radical-nationalist Pan German movement [….] And, in essence, his anti-democratic, anti-Socialist sentiments similarly reproduce the conventional thinking of broad sectors of the German right from both before and after the First World War.” (2)

If Hitler wasn’t saying anything new, to what extent can we say he persuaded people? What did he persuade them of?

A closely related problem is that large numbers of Germans supported Hitler politically but rejected the central aspects of his ideology—such as his eliminationist racism and his desire for another war. Although he’d long been absolutely clear that those were central to his views, when he began to downplay them (especially in 1932 and 33), many people believed those were trivial aspects that could be ignored. Many people supported him strategically, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches, both of which were outraged by the Social Democrats’ (democratic socialists) liberal social policies (e.g., legalizing homosexuality, supporting feminism, and, especially, breaking the religious monopoly on primary schools). Since Hitler and the Nazis were socially conservative, and Hitler promised to allow the churches more power than the Social Democrats would allow, many Protestants voted for Nazis, and the official Catholic Party (the Centre Party) Reichstag members voted unanimously for Hitler taking on dictatorial power (for more on this background, see Evans; Spicer).

Some scholars refer to “the propaganda of success,” by which they mean that Hitler gained the support of people not because he put forward good arguments, or even because of anything he said, but because they liked his locking up Marxists and Socialists, industrialists liked his support of big business, people liked the increased amount of order, they liked the improved economy, they liked his conservative social policies, a lot of Germans liked his persecution of immigrants, and a lot of people either liked or didn’t mind the legitimating and legalizing of discrimination against Jews (even the churches only objected to discrimination against converted Jews). And large numbers of Germans didn’t particularly like the idea of democracy—the premise of democracy is that political situations are complicated, and that there aren’t obvious solutions. Or, more accurately, there are solutions that appear to be obviously right from one perspective, but are obviously wrong from another perspective. Democratic processes assume that the various perspectives need to be taken into consideration, and so the best policy for the community as a whole will not be perfect for anyone and will take a lot of time to determine—many people would rather that a powerful leader make all the decisions and leave them out of it. After Hitler had been in power a year, many people felt that their lives were better, and that’s all they really cared about—that they were headed down a road that would make their lives much worse didn’t concern them because they didn’t think about it.

Finally, many people came to support Nazis because they liked that Hitler made them feel proud of being German again. He didn’t make them feel proud of being German by changing their minds about anything, but by insisting publicly and endlessly that they were victims—that nothing about their situation was the consequence of bad decisions they had made. He wasn’t saying anything that was new, but it was new for a political leader—he was simply the first major German political figure in a long time to say, unequivocally, Germany was for Germans, and Germans were entitled to run Europe (if not the world).

All these characteristics of Hitler’s relationship with his supporters—his lack of originality, strategic acquiescence, hostility to democracy, narrow self-interest on the part of many Germans, and the propaganda of success—mean that it’s actually an open question as to whether Hitler’s rhetoric was unique, let alone how much power we should ascribe to it. And so this course will consider the questions: what were Hitler’s rhetorical strategies? how unique or unusual was (is) it? what kind of impact does it have? to what extent (and under what circumstances) does it work?


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.'” Philosophy of Literary Form. U of California P, 1974.

Evans, Richard. The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin, 2005.

Gregor, Neil. How to Read Hitler. Norton, 2005.

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale U P, 2009.

O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas. Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. Oxford UP, 2016.

Shirer, William. The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Spicer, Kevin, ed. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Indiana UP, 2007.

Ethos, pathos, and logos

Since the reintroduction of Aristotle to rhetoric in the 60s, there has been a tendency to read him in a post-positivist light. That is, the logical positivists (building on Cartesian thought) insisted on a new way of thinking about thinking—on an absolute binary between “logic” and “emotion.” This was new—prior to that binary, the dominant models involved multiple faculties (including memory and will) and a distinction within the category we call “emotions.” While it was granted that some emotions inhibited reasoning (such as anger and vengeance) theorists of political and ethical deliberation insisted on the importance of sentiments. The logical positivists (and popular culture), however, created a zero-sum relationship between emotion (bad) and reasoning (logic–good). Thus, when we read Aristotle’s comment about the three “modes” of persuasion post-positivist world, we tend to assume that he meant “pathos” in the same way we mean “emotion” and “logos” in the same (sloppy) way we use the word “logic.” And we get ourselves into a mess.

For instance, for many people, “logic” is an evaluative term—a “logical” argument is one that follows rules of logic. Yet, textbooks will describe an “appeal to facts” as a logos (logical) argument. That’s incoherent. Appealing to “facts” (let’s ignore how muckled that word is) isn’t necessarily logical—the “facts” might be irrelevant, they might be incorporated into an argument with an inconsistent major premise, the argument might have too many terms. In rhetoric, we unintentionally equivocate on the term “logical,” using it both to mean any attempt to reason and only logically correct ways of reasoning. (It’s both descriptive and evaluative.)

The second problem with the binary of emotion and reason is that, as is often the case with binaries, we argue for one by showing the other often fails. Since relying entirely on emotion often leads to bad decisions, then it must be bad, and relying on logic must be good. That’s an illogical argument because it has an invalid major premise. Were it valid, then someone who made that argument would also agree that relying on emotion must be good because relying purely on logic sometimes misleads (it’s the same major premise—if x sometimes has a bad outcome, then not-x must be good).

So, even were we to assume that emotion and logic are binaries (they aren’t), then what we would have to conclude is that neither is sufficient for deliberating.

And, in any case, there’s no reason to take a 19th century western notion and try to trap Aristotle into it.

A better way to think about Aristotle’s division is that he is talking about: what the argument of a speech is, who is making the speech, and how they are making it. So, the logos (discourse) in a speech can be summarized in an enthymeme because, he said, that’s how people reason about public affairs. There are better and worse ways of reasoning, and he names a few ways we get misled, but he didn’t hold rhetoric to the same standards he held disputation—that is where he went into details about inference. An appeal to logos, in Aristotle’s terms, isn’t necessarily what we mean by a logical argument.

Aristotle pointed out that who makes the speech has tremendous impact on how persuasive it is (and also how we should judge it)—both the sort of person the rhetor is (young, old, experienced, choleric), and how the person appears in the speech (reasonable, angry). And, finally, how the person makes the speech has a strong impact on the audience, whether it’s highly styled, plain, loud, and so on.

And all of those play together. A vehement speech still has enthymemes, and it’s only credible if we believe the speaker to be angry—if we believe the speaker to be generally angry (or an angry sort of person) that will have a different impact from an angry speech on the part of someone we think of as normally calm. Ethos, pathos, and logos work together, and they don’t map onto our current binary about logic and emotion.

As long as I can think of someone more racist, I’m not racist at all

My *favorite* assignment in the Rhetoric of Racism course is having students look at a text (or practice) about which there is an argument (ideally a text they think is racist) and explain why there is a disagreement.

There are basically eight ways people argue that a text isn’t racist:

1) a text isn’t racist if it doesn’t make a big deal about race;

2) texts are either racist or not racist and so if there is any way in which this text criticizes racism, then it can’t be racist;

3) it’s just a “feel-good” text and you’re over-reading;

4) it isn’t racist because what it says is true (in other words, the person saying the text isn’t racist is racist);

5) racists are people who explicitly and self-consciously hate everyone of every other race, and only racist people say racist things, so if the person created the text isn’t someone who never ever associates with or who never says anything “nice” about any member of any other race, then the text can’t be racist (also known as the “some of my best friends are…” defense);

6) the author didn’t intend to be racist (so it’s only racist if the individual who created the text engaged in actions s/he knew to be racist);

7) it doesn’t have the marks of hostility toward another race (the tone isn’t over-the-top, it doesn’t use racial epithets);

8) it isn’t racist because there are other texts that are more racist, or it doesn’t endorse the most extreme versions of racism, or the person knows of people who are more racist (what I’ll call the “Eichmann defense”).

This is also a list of how racism is legitimated—these are the ways that people allow racist practices to continue. They’re all complicated to talk someone out of (although there are ways), and here I want to focus on two of them: 4) and 8), which often co-exist. These are the ones that really muckle my students, and they are really interesting.

I think the two of them share the assumption that calling a text racist is a personal attack on, not just the author(s) of the text in question, but anyone who likes it. The underlying logic is: racists are evil, evil people are entirely not-good, people who like something racist are racist, so calling someone racist, or saying something they like is racist, is saying they are entirely evil.

That logic is a good example of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” The logic maps out like a question on a standardized test “Dogs are to mammals as parakeets are to ____.”

And, therefore, since good and evil are binaries (something is entirely good or entirely evil), then, if you can imagine something more evil, you must have some good, and so can’t be entirely evil, and so you can’t be evil at all. Therefore, you must be on the “not racist” side of the equation.

Most of us (perhaps all) engage in judgments comparatively, so that, as long as we are more [whatever] than our peers, we feel good about ourselves. Clearly, 8) relies on that move—as long as you aren’t as racist as someone else, you can feel good about your attitudes.

Interestingly enough, Adolph Eichmann relied on that argument a lot. In the interrogations, he several times condemned people for a Streicher-kind of anti-Semitism—part of trying to persuade his Jewish interrogators that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He also continually tried to represent his job as okay because it wasn’t as directly death-dealing as the people who actually pulled the triggers or applied the gas.

If someone else was more guilty, then he wasn’t guilty at all.

This move is sometimes characterized as “whataboutism” but it’s actually different. Whataboutism is sheer tu quoque—it’s an attempt to shift the stasis of the argument away from what I did to some competition as to which group or individual is better. It’s almost always an admission that the people making the argument are engaged in sheer factionalism (there are complicated exceptions). So, for instance, defenders of Trump said Clinton did it too (a fallacy). But, some critics of Bill Clinton pointed out that he claimed he was a feminist and supporter of women’s rights, so his sexually harassing women was a violation of feminist principles. That’s a legitimate and important argument.

People who claim that the GOP is morally superior to the DNC can’t logically use the “Clinton groped women” argument at all because it shows that they think both parties are just as bad—and they’re claiming theirs is better.

“Whataboutism” works by accusing the out-group of doing the same thing the in-group has recently been outed for doing. But this move doesn’t accuse the out-group of anything—it just points out that there is a worse version (perhaps even a worse in-group version) of this behavior.

Eichmann defended himself as not anti-Semitic because another Nazi was more extreme. During slavery, slaveholders defended their treatment of slaves on the grounds that there were other slaveholders who were worse (they also engaged in tu quoque, but that’s a different story); pro-segregationists posited the KKK and violent segregationists as worse than they; the people I know who drink the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News flavor-aid all name somein-group pundit too extreme for them.

That someone may be more racist doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Both you and they might be racist.

Talking about racism means, I think, getting the argument away from whether people are racist, whether their intentions are deliberately racist, and whether racist/not racist is a binary.

[Image screenshot from here.]


On the precious little snowflakes who want to ban _To Kill a Mockingbird_

We have all read about the precious little snowflakes who want great pieces of literature banned because they feel that their group is attacked by some piece of literature generally considered by scholars to be great. This is a rallying point on the part of the Right-Wing Outrage Machine (RWOM), about how effeminate and sensitive students are being created by the faculty of political correctness who go on to insist that students not be allowed to read a book. That effeminate group is offended by something about the book, perhaps a word, more commonly the representation of a character who might be taken to represent their group. Perhaps the character is the only member of that group represented, or perhaps even every member of that group is represented as ignorant, violent, and criminal. The argument, according to the RWOM, is that these people say that you can’t have literature in K-12 classrooms that makes some of the students feel bad about their group, and the RWOM) is clear that they think that is a bad thing to do.

This claim—that people who object to great pieces of literature on the grounds that it makes them feel bad about their group—is an important plank in the platform of RWOM—that “liberals” are too precious to have their concerns taken seriously. “Liberals” are simultaneously sensitive and authoritarian—they can’t stand criticism of their group, and they will silence anyone who criticizes them. Thus, “liberals’” views on policy issues can be dismissed—they don’t understand that democracy is about being willing to be tough and listen to criticism of our in-group.

So, this issue, as far as the RWOM is concerned, isn’t just about the book—about whether “liberals’” concerns need to be considered at all.

And, for the RWOM, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is a case in point. There are people who object to this book being taught in K-12 because it portrays their group unfavorably. And the RWOM is univocal that those people are idiots, whose views on politics are so impaired (soft, weak, sensitive) that the people who make those arguments shouldn’t even be considered in political discourse.

The argument about TKAM, then, isn’t just an argument about that book—it’s an argument about who is should even have a voice in democratic political discourse. Democracy, as the founders said, is about disagreement. The principle of democracy is that a community benefits from different points of view. The RWOM argument about trying to censor TKAM is pretty clear: the people who want it banned from high schools are weak people who don’t understand democracy. It isn’t just that their views are bad, but that they are such weak and fragile people that their entire group should not be considered when we are thinking about policy.

Banning the book is “caving in” to people who want it banned is stupid.  Banning TKAM is a war on learning. The National Review asserts that the records suggest that all attempts to ban the book come from people who don’t like books with the “n word” in them (that isn’t true, but it is one of the reasons often given).

“But a different sin concerns today’s anti-Mockingbird crowd. In fact, the last time Mockingbird was challenged solely for its depiction of sexual intercourse, rape, or incest was in 2006 in Brentwood, Tenn. Since then, all five challenges — in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2016 — have involved parents or children made uncomfortable by the use of the “N-word” or the book’s depiction of racism.”

That National Review article condemns, in no uncertain terms, people who want the book banned because it makes them uncomfortable. So, as far as the National Review is concerned, banning the book is, prima facie, evidence of your entire political group being an idiot.

The RWOM is unusually unanimous on this point: people who object to teaching TKAM because it hurts their feelings are fragile little snowflakes whose views can be dismissed from consideration on the grounds that they are…well…too fragile. And they are clear that this isn’t a partisan issue: “But to consider To Kill a Mockingbird racially divisive is exactly backwards. The book is invaluable both for introducing students to the reality of America’s racial past and for exposing its injustices.” As in the above cases (both minor and major media), they were unequivocal that they were operating on a principle of education: that, as the National Review says, “Eliminating the hard stuff eliminates the reality.”

In other words, they aren’t taking this position because of partisan politics: it’s a principle that they hold universally.

For the sake of argument, let’s treat that as a principle. I have often argued that the RWOM makes arguments that present themselves as thoroughly, totally, and deeply principled, but are actually rabid factionalism. They were opposed to pedophilia till a pedophile was the GOP candidate for Senate; they wanted Clinton impeached for groping till they had a groper in chief. The RWOM says that their stance on TKAM is principled. Is it?

And here it’s useful to distinguish tu quoque from an argument from principle. If a person really cares about a principle, they will condemn anyone—in-group or not—for violating that principle. If concern about the principle is just a handy brick to throw at the outgroup, then, when it’s pointed out that they are violating a principle they claim to be sacred, they will say, “The out-group does it too!” That’s tu quoque. It’s a fallacy.

More important, it’s an admission that the principle didn’t matter. If I say, “You are bad because you pet squirrels,” then I am making an argument that has the major premise “people who pet squirrels are bad.” If I later defend someone who pets squirrels, I have violated the logic of my own argument. I am putting faction above principle. I don’t think someone is bad for petting squirrels—I think out-group members are bad for doing that, but not in-group members.

So, is the RWOM flinging itself around about sensitive snowflake lefties on the basis of a principle about democracy and the need to read unpleasant books? Or is this about faction?

Most of the articles I could find on the right were about the Biloxi, Mississippi controversy, when a school board decided that the book would not be required reading in eighth grade English classes, and I couldn’t find any major right-wing media who endorsed banning the book. So, this might look as the RWOM is acting on principle.

But there is some sneaky partisanship: snowflakes are lefties, and people who want to ban the book are fragile snowflakes—a term that has become a synonym for social justice warriors. So, condemning the specific policy point of wanting TKAM banned isn’t just a condemnation of that policy point—as far as the RWOM is concerned, the stance of various groups about banning TKAM can be used to condemn the entire group.

The RWOM is so drunk on outrage about the fragile lefties who want the book banned that they make objection to the book, on principle, a sign of being partisan: “I wonder if any of the Biloxi school district’s administrators know how to read.” Obviously, anyone who wants it banned is an idiot, regardless of party.

And it’s interesting to me how the metaphors work in this argument—the people who want the book banned from classrooms are girly (weak, fragile, frail, sensitive) while the people who want it taught are masculine (strong enough to see criticism of America), anti-racist (they univocally endorse Atticus Finch’s stance), and, unlike flaccid lefties, not people who demand “to soften education, to remove any pain or discomfort.” They are firm, strong, and standing tall. (The tendency on the part of the RWOM to use metaphors of hardness for their view and softness for the opposition is both sad and hilarious.)

Were this a principled stance—if the people who have worked themselves into outrage about Biloxi are acting on principle and not just partisanship–then the National Review would fling accusations of flaccidity and girlyness at anyone who objected to TKAM on the grounds that it criticized their group. Do they?


There are two, very different ways, this book is challenged.

First, there is the argument it is racist, and that’s complicated. That argument is public because it gets to school boards—the first thing a parent does when objecting to a book is go to the teacher, then the principal, so going to the school board means the teacher and principal are holding their ground.

So, what, exactly, are the arguments that TKAM is racist?

Well, for one thing, it uses the ‘n word’ a lot. And here I will say that I frequently teach material with racist epithets in it, and I make sure they know it on the first day of class. I believe, firmly, in the notion that students should be warned about what they’re getting into, and students who don’t want to read anything with racist epithets shouldn’t take the class. That isn’t because there’s anything wrong with students who would rather not read a lot of appalling racist things, but because they have a right to make choices as to whether they will read them. So I try to be clear about just how awful the reading will be.

My courses are not required; my students are college students. I thoughtfully design my classes so that students can choose to skip a fair number of readings a semester and still get a good grade on the “keeping up with the reading” part of the grade because I know that some of the readings may be unhelpfully provocative, and they can miss up to two weeks up class with no penalty. So, students who are “triggered” by readings can make strategic choices about readings and attendance. High school students don’t have those choices.

The use of the ‘n word’ in TKAM is complicated, as it is in comedy, and high school students aren’t very good at that kind of complexity, and it is used in the book in a way intended to inflict damage. Granted, one can (and, I think, should) read the book as condemning that usage, but reading the book that way involves understanding other minds and perspective-shifting, and not all high school students are there. In other words, as anyone remotely aware of scholarship in rhetoric, reader-response, or, well, basic teacher-training knows, whether a particular class can understand the complicated relationship between the narrator and the events being narrated is something only the teacher of that class could know.

But, let’s side aside the notion that audiences are different from one another and that people receive texts in different ways (really, that only means setting aside sixty years of research, so not that much).

There is another argument, mentioned above. Malcolm Gladwell has made this argument best, and I would simply add that there is a toxic and racist narrative about the Civil Rights movement in our world. That narrative is that people were racist—meaning they irrationally hated everyone who wasn’t “white” and knew that they hated everyone and knew it was irrational. So, a racist person got up in the morning and said, “In every way and every day I will irrationally hate all other races.” As long as you didn’t say that (if, for instance, you said to yourself, “I will only rationally hate all other races”), you weren’t racist.

This is the classic move of feeling good about your decisions because you could imagine someone who was behaving worse. Cheating on this exam by glancing over is okay because you didn’t get the whole exam ahead of time like someone might. Cheating That Race on the rent is okay because you didn’t try to evict them for their race. Adolph Eichmann justified his racism because he wasn’t like Julius Streicher.

What did Atticus Finch do? He, against his will, defended a black man whom he knew to be innocent in a case he knew to be entirely the kind of case Ida B. Wells-Barnett had already named years before. And, throughout the book, he insisted that the racism that would put Tom Robinson to death was one that could (magically?) be cured if people were… what? nicer? less redneck?

Finch acknowledges that the system is SO racist that Robinson telling the truth will tank his case. Robinson mentions that he was nice to the young white woman because he felt sorry for her. And Finch flinches. That moment is why this movie, and the book, are racist.

He knew he lost the case at that moment because he had a racist jury. So, does he try to do anything about their racism? Nope.

Instead, the moral center of the tale says that you need to be nice to racists and hope they’ll be a little bit less racist.

That’s racist.

I love the book. I love that one of my sisters called me “Scout” for a while because I looked like Scout. The movie and book rocked my world, and helped me to see how racist my community and culture were. It was a great book. Now it’s racist.

In its era, it wasn’t. A major issue in 1960 was that “good” people accommodated the KKK, lynchings, Citizens Councils, and that juries couldn’t be counted on to do the sensible thing. So, something that said that the KKK is not actually okay, and that juries that endorsed state-sponsored terrorism were bad was making a useful argument.

We’re way beyond that. There are various problems with TKAM in our era. Atticus Finch is a white savior, his whole stance is the progressive mystique, and the basic message of the story is that racists are rednecks, but we should all submit in a civil fashion to racist justice systems while privately bemoaning that we can’t get a better outcome. (Too bad about Tom!) To be clear, had more people in the South been like Finch in 1960 the world would have been a better place. But, in 2017 we don’t need to make heroes of people who believe that racism is a question of individual intention and feeling, and who think there are good people on both sides. There aren’t. There weren’t. Atticus was wrong about that.

And a text that can make white students feel that racism is over because it isn’t as bad as it was then, and that they would totally have been Atticus Finch (even though they do nothing that involves the same level of risk his actions involved) doesn’t do any kind of anti-racist work. It might even (albeit unintentionally) endorse racist beliefs, insofar as it makes all racism an issue of personal feeling.

This isn’t 1960, and what Finch proposes (and does) isn’t enough for where we are now. That’s another way that people can argue it’s racist—that it can make people feel that we just need to be like Finch and racism will end (or worse yet, that racism did end). So, the argument that the book is racist isn’t a stupid argument, and it certainly isn’t one that assumes some inability to handle difficult or unpleasant material—on the contrary, it’s grounded in the notion that TKAM is simplistic. And, so, as far as the Right Wing Outrage Machine goes, I am a precious and fragile snowflake because anyone who makes the kind of argument I am making is a snowflake.

But, let’s consider fairly the RWOM argument that lefties are weenies who want to silence free speech. Granted, the RWOM never engages the argument I made above—a nuanced and complicated argument about TKAM. Their argument is (as I hope I’ve shown) the false argument that anyone who objects to TKAM being taught in K-12 is a weeny who doesn’t want to hear criticism of their in-group.

If you are intellectually generous, you can find an implied syllogism in the RWOM outrage about TKAM: Lefties are people whose views can be dismissed because they oppose texts like TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group.

That’s a potentially logically argument, and argument from principle: anyone who objects to TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group is promoting a political agenda we should dismiss.

Recently, I spent the day with high school teachers from various places in Texas, and the issue of TKAM came up, especially their being told they couldn’t teach it. I was familiar with the cases when it came to school boards, and was willing to defend the case that it wasn’t a useful book for teaching about racism because we’ve moved beyond when aversive racism was the major issue, but that wasn’t the main complaint for any of them.

Every one of them said that the book was pulled because parents of white students complained that it made white Southerners feel bad about their past. They complained to the principal, and the book was pulled.[1] That’s the second reason the book is pulled, and you can see it in the ALA list of reasons the book is challenged.

So, I’m sure, now that I’ve said that racist white Southerners feel hurt about TKAM the RWOM will, because it’s a principle about criticism, insist that TKAM be taught. Who is the snowflake here?

I’m sure, since the Right Wing Outrage Machine is all about principle, they’ll now look into this issue.

I’m also sure I have a unicorn in my garden that poops gold.


[1] Here is the interesting point. Yes, parents who didn’t want TKAM taught because of the n word, and because of complicated issues about its racism, went to school boards. Presumably they didn’t first go to the school boards; they went to the principal and didn’t get anywhere, so they kept taking it up the ladder. Parents who didn’t want their white students to have to confront white racism went to the principal, and got their way. In other words, people who wanted to protect the fragile feelings of white Southerners didn’t need to go to the School Board—they could count on principals protecting the feelings of their previous snowflakes white students who didn’t want to hear that segregation might have been bad. Parents with more complicated issues had to go to the School Board.




What it means when someone says “Calling something racist is anti-white”

Every once in a while, someone will claim that condemning racism is anti-white. That’s racist. By its own logic.

But it’s a kind of normalized racism, a racism so deep in the structures of thought that a person saying it wouldn’t feel what they think of as racist (that is, hostility to all other races). They think that condemning racism is itself racist because they think that racism is “hostility to another race.” Since condemning racism is condemning whites (see below), and condemnation is hostile, then condemning racism is being hostiles to whites. Q fucking ED.

In addition, the underlying assumption is that, if you’re white, you should be entirely “loyal” to your in-group. For authoritarians, in-group loyalty means refusing to criticize the in-group in any way. If you are condemning racism, you are condemning whites (an interesting admission that whites engage in actions that look pretty racist to people), and so you are disloyal to whites.

So, that argument is assuming 1) there are races; 2) the races are in a zero-sum relationship (concern for a non-white race is hostility to whites); 3) whites engage in racist actions; 4) you shouldn’t draw attention to those actions because that helps non-white racists; 5) helping non-white races hurts whites.

In other words, that “criticism” assumes that people should be hostile to all other races, and it defines racism as hostility to other races.

It’s a bad definition, but that doesn’t really matter here—what matters is that, by its own logic, it’s racist.