Political Correctness

The term “politically correct” has a pretty straightforward origin, one that makes its current usage unintentionally ironic.

It was used by Stalinists who had a fairly complicated time keeping up with what the Politburo had determined was the correct thing to think or say. From the time that Stalin took over until he died, the Communist Party changed positions on a lot of things, but that’s a major problem for their kind of Marxism, since that kind of Marxism says that the truth is obvious to anyone not corrupted by capitalist ideology.

At the same time that Stalinist/Marxist ideology said that the true course of action was obvious to everyone, the Politburo flipped on the true course of action. The Kulaks were great; they were awful; Nazis were allies; they were enemies; this person was great; he was a villain. Thus, being a supporter of the USSR meant that you had to believe, at the same time, that the truth was always absolutely obvious to everyone who was objective AND now you had to contradict yourself in regard to what you said yesterday.

Thus, if you were loyal to your in-group, you needed continual updates as to what the latest “politically correct” stance was. The notion of political correctness started with Stalinists, and it had three sub-points:

  • First, being “politically correct” meant that you turned on a dime in order to support whatever was now seen as what you should say and believe—you were repeating the talking points that showed loyalty to your ingroup.
  • Second, that they contradicted what you said yesterday, or that the talking points contradicted each other, didn’t make sense in terms of other things your group was doing—all of that was actually a virtue. As Orwell pointed out, the true sign of loyalty is committing to a claim that you know is false and yet that you will insist is true. Sometimes people will misquote Tertullian on this: “I believe because it is absurd.” Publicly supporting rational and reasonable stances doesn’t show group loyalty, but insisting on the truth of obviously false claims? That shows true loyalty to the group

Later, “politically correct” came to be the term used to police language that was uninclusive. In other words, to be “politically correct” was to try to use language that didn’t actively offend someone—it meant trying be respectful of others and politically thoughtful in your actions.

In some groups, however, it meant that being a part of that group meant that you agreed with them in everything, including where you bought your clothes, what terms you used, what you read. Any deviation from what was obviously the politically correct action was a reason for someone to shame you. And so people who were tired of callout culture started using “politically correct” in an ironic way to express our discomfort with the assumption that being lefty meant pure agreement on all actions.

And then it got picked up on the right by people who used it as snark for anyone on the left, and for any kind of care for how we describe one another. To be “politically correct” in this world is to give any thought to others’ feelings.

And, so “politically correct” went from an unironic term used to shame people in a hierarchical system that could determine what were the correct talking points (or how partisans should spin things–the Stalinist usage) to a game of purity oneupsmanip (what some people call “callout culture”) to snarking about callout culture, to a term used to dismiss any kind of kindness or even politeness about what terms we use.

And there is an unintentional irony in that last usage. The pundits and their followers who throw the phrase at others the most (and in the most dismissive way) are the ones most likely to be politically correct in the original sense: that they can turn on a dime in terms of the political beliefs, all the while claiming to be absolutely truthful. And they love political figures and pundits who are honest and authentic and, as they say, “unbiased,” but who flop like a goldfish getting pawed by a cat. Hillary should be jailed, she shouldn’t; Obama wasn’t born in the US, his birthplace isn’t an issue; everyone should have healthcare, healthcare should be restricted to people with certain jobs; regime change is great, regime change is a disaster, regime change is great.

There is a strategy sometimes called “projection,” and sometimes called “strategic misnaming,” in which you simply accuse the opposition of doing what you’re doing. (“You’re the puppet!”) A lot of the accusation of “political correctness,” it seems to me is on the part of people who are themselves obsessed with being politically correct.

How to argue about whether something is racist

This class is about how to argue whether a text or action of some kind is racist; this isn’t about whether a person is racist. On the whole, that isn’t a productive argument (although you sometimes have to have it). The first step in a useful argument about whether something is racist is to try to figure out why we’re having the argument in the first place—what the determination of racist/not racist will do for us is what enables us to decide which definition of racism is the most relevant.

All of this may seem confusing to you, since you might be accustomed to thinking of “is this racist” as a straightforward question of right and wrong—if it’s racist, it’s morally wrong, and if it isn’t, then it’s morally right. And while I do think racism is morally wrong, I also think there is a continuum with some things being more racist than others (as you’ll find later, it’s even possible for something to be racist and anti-racist at the same time). Even if something is morally wrong, you’re likely to respond to it in different ways. For instance, your 90 year old not-quite-all-there grandpa might use a term we now consider racist but which was considered the polite term when he was young. You’d react to that differently than if someone your own age (who knows perfectly well it isn’t an okay term) uses it. You might not do anything at all with your grandpa, but drop like a hot rock the person your age.

If a person making hiring decisions for your company said something racist, you’d react differently than you would if some random person in line at the grocery store said the same thing. If you were HR, you might fire them—whether or not they intended to be racist, on the grounds that their mere presence on the hiring team jeopardized your company.

In this class, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about different definitions of “racist,” which ones are more useful than others, and under what circumstances.

On the whole, definitions of racism tend to emphasize one of several points on the rhetorical triangle: text, intent, consequence, relationship to context,or impact on audience.

For instance, for some people, as long as a text does not have racist epithets it isn’t racist (although those same people don’t usually immediately decide that a text with racist epithets is racist—more on that below). Others do decide that the use of racist epithet (by any character or in any context) is racist. Both those decisions rely purely on text.

This criterion—presence or absence of racist epithets—seems to me the least useful, in that there are the fewest instances in which it seems to me especially relevant. A person can, after all, argue for the expulsion or even extermination of another race without using racist epithets (in fact, that’s most commonly how it’s done). And some anti-racist texts can use racist epithets to persuade the audience that racism is harmful (the argument often made about Django Unchained).

Many people believe that the main problem with racism is that it is hostility against members of another “race”—that is, it is an issue of individuals’ feelings. If you define “racism” as “hostility toward members of another race,” then you will tend to look at texts for evidence of hostility—affective markers, boosters, and other linguistic signs of anger. That method also doesn’t work particularly well, as some of the most racist policies have been invoked in the name of kindness, with apparently calm tones, or by appealing to “facts” and “reality.” (White supremacists often call themselves “racial realists.”)

Emphasizing the feelings that individuals have is one example of how people imagine racism to be a problem of individual agency (rather than systems). In this model, racism exists because too many people choose to be racist, or allow themselves to slip into racist and ingrained habits. If enough individuals chose to stop responding in racist ways, then racism goes away. (That is a problematic assumption.)

Intent seems to me a slightly more usable criterion, but only for limited circumstances. It is important in social situations in which we’re trying to determine if a person should be forgiven. If a person says something racist, but didn’t mean to (didn’t realize it was a racist term, was thoughtlessly repeating a meme they didn’t understand to be racist), then you’re more likely to be willing to forgive them. If they keep saying that thing, although it’s been explained to them that they’re saying something racist, then we might conclude that they really do intend to be racist.

Intent matters in some legal situations (e.g., hate crimes) but not others (e.g., the question of disparate impact). “Disparate impact” is a kind of racism that doesn’t require any intent—if you have a policy with no intent of hurting a particular race (or religion), but that’s exactly what it will do, then you’ve got “disparate impact,” which has been ruled discrimination. If you ban hairstyles that you consider too casual, and they’re precisely and exclusively the ones worn by people of a particular race, then—whether or not it was your conscious intent—your policy has racist consequences. (A lot of school dress codes get challenged on exactly these grounds.)

Intent, like the question of feelings, assumes that racism is the consequence of individuals choosing or allowing themselves to be racist—that there is individual agency in racism. I think the reasoning works something like this: evil in the world is the consequence of individuals choosing to do evil things; racism is evil; therefore, racism must bet he consequence of individuals choosing to be racist. The assumption is that if we had a world in which no one intended to be racist, there would be no racism, but that isn’t the case.

Thus, intent matters for law and social castigation, but it’s of limited importance otherwise. For instance, google image search “beautiful hair.” You’ll see a very racist outcome—almost exclusively white women (and the nonwhite women usually have very, very high maintenance hair). But there was no one intending to create a racist cultural view of what is beautiful hair. There are people intending to sell products, and doing so within a racist culture.

One of the more straightforward ways to measure whether a text or action is racist is to look at whether it reinforces existing racist practices and structures. The most productive arguments, it seems to me, work within this framework. I think it’s helpful partially because it allows a more nuanced discussion—it’s possible to talk about how much harm something caused, what kind, and to whom (rather than a binary of harmful/not harmful). It’s also possible to talk more intelligently about texts that are both racist and anti-racist (South Pacific, To Kill a Mockingbird) if we think about harm; we can talk about the kind of harm the text or action tried to prevent or ameliorate and what kind of harm it caused.

Thinking about consequence also enables us to talk about the same act or text having different consequences in different era or with different audiences. Some critics of American Sniper argued that it was not seen as racist in its showings in Iraq because viewers saw it as demonizing a particular political party, but it had racist consequences in the US because viewers saw it as confirming demonized (and racist) views of Iraqis. It could be argued that To Kill a Mockingbird was progressive for its era, but now it’s actually regressive.

That last comment brings up the argument about relationship to context—what do we do about texts that are racist, but less racist than was the norm for their era or culture? If we think of “racist” as an absolute category—something is either racist or it isn’t—then we’re hopelessly entangled by these cases. If we can think of it as on a continuum, then we can talk about them more sensibly.

We have to be careful, however, not to assume that things have been getting steadily less racist as time goes on. Huckleberry Finn (1885) is much more racist than Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and there was a lot of anti-racist being done in its era. Sometimes we excuse texts by overstating the dominance of racism in an era—even in eras in which it was common, there were people who spoke against it. While I don’t think that racism is subject to pure agency (people could simply choose to be or not to be racist), there are some choices. Being in a particular culture or time doesn’t force someone to be racist, after all. So, while I think it’s useful to put texts in contexts, it should be in service of a nuanced understanding of how the racism works in them, not as a “get out of racism free” card.

The criterion of impact on audience might be subsumed under consequence, but students have found it useful to separate them. The impact on the audience might cultural (the text problematizes or confirms common racist attitudes) but it might also be more individual (the text makes individuals uncomfortable in a good or bad way). For instance, while the word “niggardly” has nothing to do with the similar sounding racist term, it’s reasonable for some people to be made really uncomfortable by it, and so it’s reasonable to try to avoid using it, just on the grounds of how it makes people feel. On the other hand, while the phrase “welching on a bet” originally came from a racist stereotype about the Welsh, I don’t think anyone knows that anymore (or has that stereotype) so, at least in the US, it doesn’t seem to me helpful to call that a racist phrase.

My point in giving all these criteria is not to set out some kind of easy decision-tree on “is this racist.” Instead, I’m suggesting that students see these criteria as stases for arguments about racism. It’s hard to have a good argument on anything if interlocutors are on different stases, and a lot of people don’t realize that any argument can have multiple stases—and you can choose among them. Sometimes, for an argument about racism to become more useful, people have to agree first on the stasis, and that might mean that people might have to understand that their notion about how to determine “is this racist” isn’t a useful criterion. In this class, you’ll be looking at that question a lot–what is the stasis for this argument, and is it the most relevant and useful stasis?

A lot of definitions with racism describe it as a problem of individuals who have hostility based on irrational beliefs. Google gives us “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” And prejudice is “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.”

So, racism is an individual feeling antagonism against someone of a different race because she believes her race is superior, and that believe is not based on reason or actual experience.

Hubert Sumlin has accused Chester Burnette of being racist. If I agree with those dictionary definitions of racism, then I need to decide if Chester feels antagonism toward another race, if he thinks his race is superior, and if his beliefs have no basis in reason or experience.

One way to test whether that is a good definition would be to take a case we think a definition should catch. I think it’s reasonable to decide that the Nazis, since a major part of their political policy was the extermination of races, were racist. So, if this definition of racism doesn’t apply to them, then it isn’t a good definition.

Well, interestingly enough, if you apply those standards to major current defenders of the Nazis, you’ll find that they maintain they feel no antagonism to the other group but simply want separation. They insist that their support of Nazism is not unreasonable—they can cite experiences of the other races being bad, and one book advocating neo-Nazism has around 1k footnotes, so it gives reasons.

And, of course, the Nazis came to power on a policy of separation, not extermination, and the expulsion of illegal immigrants of that group, although the whole group was kind of suspect. So, that isn’t a good definition of racist.

And, let’s go back to Chester and Hubert. How would I would know what Chester feels and believes?

This is a surprisingly interesting question.

There is a period in cognitive development when children develop a theory of mind—that is, they understand that other people have ideas, feelings, and commitments that might be different from the ones they have (to put it crudely). Other people have other minds, in other words. (Not everyone develops that ability, and they go through life believing that everyone believes exactly what they do—people who disagree are just pretending to have different ideas.)

In some cases, developing a theory of other minds leads to the skill of perspective shifting—the ability to imagine what things would like from those other minds, and at least the effort to see things from that perspective. In an unhappy number of cases, however, it leads to the tendency to think that your mind is the one cleaved to reality, and those other minds are just unhinged or wrong. We also have a tendency to believe that our perception of those other minds is unmediated and perfect. This is such a profound problem that social psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error—it’s fundamental to a lot of other errors. We attribute views and feelings to other people, and then we believe we have perceived those views and feelings.

And that attribution is biased, especially by whether someone is in our ingroup or outgroup, what our feelings are toward that person (mad, afraid, attracted, sad). We tend to attribute bad motives to outgroup members and good motives to ingroup members, and can be astonishingly self-serving in our perceptions. For instance, if we’re feeling aggressive toward someone else, we’re tempted to attribute aggression to them, thereby making ourselves feel that our aggression is a justified response. Or, if we’re attracted to someone, we might interpret their inner state as attracted to us (that’s why stalkers never see themselves as stalking—they sincerely believe they know that the victim is or easily could be attracted to them).

So, imagine that we’ll use the standard dictionary definition of racist. It says “one’s own race,” so this is about what an individual does. And now we have to figure out if there is antagonism or prejudice, and if the person believes his/her race is superior.

If you believe that “Lithuanian” is a race, and you are racist about Lithuanians, believing them to be essentially stupid and criminal, you wouldn’t be able to use the common dictionary definition to recognize your racism (or the racism of anyone else in your ingroup who also believed Lithuanians are stupid and criminal). You would be able to ask yourself, “Is my belief about Lithuanians grounded in reason or actual experiences?” and answer, “Yes!” That’s because you would be able to think of a time that someone you thought was Lithuanian did some stupid. You might be able to think of an expert who also said they’re stupid. You’d be surprisingly likely to assume that every stupid person you met was Lithuanian, or to interpret smart things a Lithuanian did as stupid. If you were forced to acknowledge that there was a famous mathematician genius who was Lithuanian, you might decide she was probably adopted, illegitimate, or of mixed heritage. You might decide she wasn’t really a genius, but had just happened to get something right, or had stolen all her ideas from a non-Lithuanian. In fact, an infinite number of counter-examples would not change your mind about Lithuanians—more important, it wouldn’t even get you to see that your stance was unreasonable, because you could explain them all away.

You also might tell yourself that you don’t feel antagonism—you are just realistic about Lithuanians. And you don’t discriminate, you just don’t give them more than they deserve.

If a definition of racism is going to be helpful, it has to be one that enables racists to realize we’re being racist. And, that definition of “prejudice” isn’t helpful.

It isn’t any better if we’re trying to apply that definition to someone else. The inherent problem with believing that racism is a question of unreasonable feelings and bad intent is that we have to figure out the inner state of Chester, and we’re extremely likely to engage in the fundamental attribution error—if we think Chester is good, we’ll attribute good motives; if we don’t like Chester, we’ll attribute bad motives. There is a connected problem with this—we tend to think of racism as an issue of individual morality. Racism is immoral, and so people who are racist are immoral.

Therefore, if a person is not immoral, they can’t be racist. I am not immoral, therefore I can’t be racist. Ta effing dah.

It’s this false assumption that gets us into those weird cases of someone having said or done something racist and various people saying, “She can’t be racist, because she did these good things.”

There’s a second, and more complicated, problem with this way of thinking about racism—that it has to do with the intent, feelings, beliefs and/or prejudices of individuals. Take, for instance, this clip: https://everysinglewordspoken.tumblr.com/post/141726767183/total-run-time-of-all-nancy-meyers-directed. It’s every single word said by a person of color in every single Nancy Meyers-directed movie (it lasts about five minutes). Does Meyers exclude people of color from her movies because of antagonism? Probably not. And probably not because of any conscious notion that her race is better. She might not intend to discriminate—maybe she just doesn’t think to include non-whites in her movies; or maybe she is trying to get the most “bankable” stars (and audiences tend to be racist). It doesn’t really matter if she intends to discriminate against non-whites; she does. Having twelve hours of movie with five minutes of non-white is racist. But it isn’t just her racism—it’s the racism of audiences, producers, and the systems of movie-making.

So, how should we think about racism?

First, a few terms that will make all this more straightforward:

  • A “taxonomy” is a method of categorizing. If you have your closet organized by shirts/pants/skirts/jackets, that’s your taxonomy. You might instead organize your closet by what’s useful to have for different outside temperatures (warm/cold/moderate), circumstances under which you might wear them (formal/business casual/casual/athletic), or perhaps by color, how often you wear them, or some other taxonomy.
  • socially constructed. Some people think that a belief is either subjective (random, arbitrary, entirely in your head) OR objective (a perception of a brute fact that is entirely external to your brain, and which exists regardless of whether anyone believes it—also called “ontologically grounded”). That isn’t actually a very useful division. Where, for instance, would you put money? It isn’t subjective—I can’t draw Millard Filmore’s face on green paper and get Starbucks to give me coffee—but it isn’t a brute fact. I can get coffee in the US with a five dollar bill, but not in England. Money is a socially-constructed fact. It is a fact—it is an inescapable condition of our culture, but only because we’ve implicitly agreed to give it that kind of power.
  • salience. That word simply means the condition of sticking out. You might have troops in a line, but with a bubble that sticks out—that’s your salient. In any situation, there are all sorts of things you might notice, but some of them stick out. Those things have more salience. Salience is context-dependent, idiosyncratic, and/or socially constructed. If religion is important to you, then you might notice how many people of various religions there are in a group (or class, or room)—you might notice there are a lot of people who mention being Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. You might also notice that the class is quieter than you think normal. We tend to confuse salience with importance, and attribute causality to salient conditions. So, you would be irrationally likely to assume that the two salient things are causally connected—it’s quiet because there are a lot of Wisconsin Synod Lutherans.
  • confirmation bias. We tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs more, and more easily than things that don’t. Even when we try to “test” our beliefs, we generally do so in ways that enable confirmation bias. If, for instance, you believe that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans tend to be quiet, then you’ll decide that the class is quiet because there are so many of them. If you believe that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans tend to intimidate others, you’ll decide the class being quiet is an example of their having intimidated everyone into silence. A person for whom religion isn’t important, but who has a hypothesis that morning classes are more quiet, will, if it’s a morning class, conclude that this class proves that hypothesis.
  • The ingroup is the group you’re in that is important to your sense of identity. You have lots of them, and they become more or less salient depending on context. Being a Texan (or whatever state you’re from) is important if you’re around people from various states, and would be especially important if someone said something nasty about your state, but isn’t something you’d mention introducing yourself to other people in Texas.
  • An ingroup is often defined (or made more salient) by the sense of there being an outgroup which it is not. In terms of race, the concept of “white” only makes any sense if there is a “not white” to define it. (The various groups that are called “white” don’t actually have very much in common, and used to be designated as different races. But they can claim white because they aren’t non-white.)
  • essentializing (or naturalizing). Ingroups and outgroups are socially constructed—they’re both as real and as arbitrary as money. They have tremendous power but only because a culture decides they do, and individuals can’t suddenly decide, “I don’t see money” and have any impact on how the world works. (And they’ll still use money to buy groceries.) That so many things are socially constructed (such as the boundaries of states and nations, or the boundaries of groups) makes many people extremely nervous—especially people who don’t like uncertainty, ambiguity, or nuance. There are people who get anxious and angry if they are made aware that their taxonomies are socially constructed and might change. Their inability to manage uncertainty and ambiguity cognitively means that they will INSIST that those taxonomies are Real. Race is not, they will insist, a social construct, but a biological one—they will insist those categories are appealing to essences of people, to identities grounded in nature. They will take a socially constructed category (such as nation) and insist that the members of that nation are essentially the same in that they all have certain temperaments, political tendencies, or identities.
  • social/cultural goods. This is a vague notion, but useful. Any culture has things that are culturally marked as goods—money, prestige, status symbols (living in that neighborhood, getting treated this way by police, being able to go to those restaurants), political power.
  • zero-sum relationships. There are some relationships in which the more one category gets, the less the other category gets. So, if I have a discretionary budget of $100 per week, the more I spend on coffee, the less I can spend on going to listen to music. There is a zero-sum relationship between those two categories. If you spend less on coffee, you have more to spend on music. Many people grow up in a highly competitive family situation in which there is a sort of zero-sum relationship in parental love or attention—the more that a sibling gets, the less there is for you. So, a person in that world might think, “if my parents spend less love on my sibling, there is more for me.”
  • Moral Foundations research. The research (http://moralfoundations.org/) on this is pretty clear. People who self-identify as liberals tend to value fairness across groups as opposed to some notion of proportionality (fairness is you get what you deserve, which is what self-identified conservatives value). Self-identified conservatives value loyalty, authority, and sanctity more than liberals do.

Racism essentializes socially constructed taxonomies of ingroup/outgroup by relying on perceptions of salient characteristics of groups that we decide are true because of confirmation bias, and assumes those groups are in a zero/sum relationship as far as social/cultural goods; it therefore rejects any notion of fairness across groups.

Racism is a pernicious and toxic example of a relatively common phenomenon—that people have a tendency to categorize themselves and others in terms of groups, and to engage in “in-group favoritism.” It isn’t the consequence, let alone a necessary consequence, of that way of thinking—but a very nasty version of it. After all, while the tendency to think in terms of ingroups and outgroups is universal, making those groups racial categories isn’t—race is a relatively recent concept, not fully formed until the 18th or even 19th centuries, and different from other ways of thinking about groups in important ways.

In fact, “races” are socially constructed—what has counted as “white” has changed considerably, even in the last 100 years. In 1916, very powerful book was published that argued that there were three white races—not all whites, according to Madison Grant, were the same race (and race-mixing within whites was damaging to civilization). In the 19th century, racialist science sometimes claimed there were four races, sometimes three—that inability to agree is interesting, since racists claim that “race” is eternal and an obviously physiological category. If it’s obvious, why can’t they agree? In fact, even scientists promoting the notion of race as a scientific category couldn’t come up with a consistent definition of “race,” let alone one that fit the evidence they had.

Even in the early twentieth century, there were scientists who pointed out that the way eugenicists talked about race didn’t make any sense. They showed that people advocating racial purity used “race” in two very different meanings ways—there were the socially constructed categories, which were based on linguistic, political, and national boundaries (such as the notion of an “Irish” race); there were also possibilities of biological categories (such as Celtic) but 1) given the long history of human interaction, they were not discrete categories; and 2) those biological categories had nothing to do with the socially-constructed categories. Biologically, there was no “Irish” or “Italian” race, just nationalities. So, the notion that immigration quotas were backed by genetic data made no sense.

Racism doesn’t necessitate that people consciously think that their race is superior to others; it only requires ingroup favoritism (the unconscious tendency to perceive a situation as “fair” if our group gets slightly more).

It tends to get more antagonistic if we think our group and another (or several others, or all others) are in a “zero-sum” relationship. If we’re having a pie potluck, and each person who comes will bring more pie than he can eat, then more people who come means more pie for everyone. But, if we have a single pie and no one is bringing more, then the more people who come, the less pie there is for YOU. In that second circumstance, the more someone else gets, the less you get—someone’s gain is necessarily someone else’s loss. (There’s a complicated, but good, explanation of how it works in economics here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum_game).

There are some people who perceive every situation as zero-sum, even when it isn’t. Hyper-competitive people will often feel as though praise for someone else’s accomplishment injures them (as though it takes something away from their accomplishments), and so they can sincerely believe that the best response to someone else achieving something is to try to criticize or undermine that person. One of the characteristics of a toxic relationship is that one or both people believe that they are threatened by the other person being successful, and most of the bad behavior of bridezillas can be attributed to a sense that any attention paid to anyone else is taking something away from the bride to which she is entitled.

While not all racism requires zero-sum thinking, it is interesting that a lot of racism is justified through sloppy social Darwinism (that human interactions are inherently a contest which result in the survival of the fittest—not actually a Darwinian concept at all). White people (that is, people who think of themselves as “white”) who think about all social interactions as zero-sum competitions have trouble seeing the problem with Nancy Meyers’ movies having so few non-whites, and to condemn as “political correctness” any movie more diverse. It isn’t necessarily that they think to themselves that whites are superior, but they are likely to believe that it is “normal” to be more interested in white people (white people are “naturally” entitled to more attention, white people problems are more “interesting” or “universal” than the problems of non-whites, which are “particular” to those groups).

People drawn to racist explanations and assumptions tend not to be very good at perspective-shifting (they also get really uncomfortable with ambiguity and complexity). They not only see things only from their perspective, but the more racist they are, the less able they are to acknowledge that there are any other perspectives that might be legitimate. They might believe that everyone who disagrees is just pretending (but secretly agrees), or they might believe everyone who disagrees is an idiot, or they might believe that their way of looking at things is unbiased and universal and other ways are biased and particular. So, someone who looked at things that way would have trouble being interested in literature or films about people not like them—such art requires perspective-shifting, and they’re bad at it. They would be likely to think of their reaction as the one everyone like them has, so, if a white director made movies with a diverse cast, they would see that as deliberately pandering to people who don’t really have a valid perspective (wanting more diverse art).

But, again, they wouldn’t experience themselves as feeling any antagonism (except to “political correctness”), nor would they be aware of some sense of their race being superior—they would just want to focus on “people like them.”

People who tend to be racist tend to be drawn to thinking in black/white terms in general (they have trouble thinking in terms of continua, matrices, or probabilities). In fact, they often actively angry if you tell them a situation is complicated, as they think you’re being indecisive. They tend to believe that groups are meaningful (you can get most of what you need to know about someone by deductions that you can make from their group membership); they tend to think in terms of identities and motives (they essentialize people); they tend to dislike new music, new food, new genres (of literature, movies, TV), and new places (they get agitated by difference). They tend to be naïve realists. They have trouble admitting error, let alone learning from mistakes.

One more point about outgroups. It seems to me common for people to have two kinds of outgroups—a group that is threatening because it is cunning and scheming, and another that is threatening because it is animalistic. The first group is often represented as controlling the animalistic group, and the second is often thought of as in a binary of either submissive (like a domesticated pet) or in rebellion. When racists talking about that first group as “cunning” people can think it isn’t racism, since it seems to be a compliment; when racists talk about that second group as childlike and happy, people can also miss the racism (since they seem to be saying “nice” things about the group). Sometimes racists will praise submissive members of the outgroup, as though that shows they aren’t racist—but they’re only praising members who “know their place.” It’s still racism.

As you’ll see in the class, there is a lot of disagreement as to whether racism is a new phenomenon—some people categorize it as a kind of hostility to outgroup that is inherent to the human condition. I’m dubious, since other kinds of hostility to outgroups allowed conversion or assimilation. Because racism “naturalizes” the differences (that is, puts them into nature) there is no possibility of being treated as equal to the ingroup—the Other will always be Other.

The alt-rechts, or, in English, the old right

The old right, I mean alt-right, is clear what they’re doing.

Here’s what’s interesting to me about the current old-right. I am a huge fan of Ralph Ezekiel’s ethnographic study of neo-Nazis (The Racist Mind). But I’ve often wondered the internet changed the dynamics. Years after the book came out, he wrote an article, “The Racist Mind Revisited” that I found really useful. I’ve been reminded of it this weekend, and I’m thinking that the internet changed how the message is disseminated, but not what the message is, nor why it’s persuasive.

These quotes are from this article: “An Ethnographer Looks at Neo-Nazi and Klan Groups: The Racist Mind Revisited.” American Behavioral Scientist, 09/2002, Volume 46, Issue 1.

I’ll mention that he also talks about the macho ideology and the marginalized participation of women.

“Americans today often learn about Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan through television clips of rallies or marches by men uniformed in camouflage garb with swastika armbands or in robes. These images often carry commentary implying that the racist people are particularly dangerous because they are so different from the viewer, being consumed by irrationality. The racists and their leaders are driven by hatred, it is suggested, and one can scarcely imagine where they come from or how to impede them.” (51)

“The movement’s ideology emerged as one interviewed leaders, listened to their speeches, and read movement newspapers and pamphlets. Two thoughts are the core of this movement: That “race” is real, and those in the movement are God’s elect. Race is seen in 19th-century terms: race as a biological category with absolute boundaries, each race having a different essence—just as a rock is a rock and a tree is a tree, a White is a White and a Black is a Black. ” (53, he’s avoiding the first person.)

“At the ideological level—in the writings and speeches of leaders—the contemporary Klan has joined the neo-Nazis in identifying the Jews as the prime source of evil. Leadership speeches throughout the movement present “the Jew” as the central enemy, with African Americans, Latinos, and Asians as the rather dumb members of “the mud races” who are pawns of the Jews, as are many brainwashed Whites. The leadership ranks gay men and lesbian women with Jews in the enemies list.

“Among the rank and file, the picture is more traditional. Most followers whom I have met exhibited intense prejudice against African Americans that tended to reflect the general prejudice of their families and neighborhoods. Followers could repeat the party line about the Jews, but my strong impression from interviews and from watching socialization into the Detroit group was that new members arrived with strong antipathy toward Blacks but little interest in Jews. They came in hating Blacks and liking the idea that the movement represented Whites in a struggle against Blacks; after entry, they had to be taught who the Jews are and why they should hate them.” (55)

“The youths I met had first become involved in racist activity in junior high school. Their prior (and subsequent) schooling had not led them to harbor a concept of community. The classroom had seldom been shaped as a community in which class members had felt mutual responsibility for one another. On the contrary, the classroom probably had reflected the desperation and the atomization of the society outside the school.

“Equally, the schools had left no feel for democracy. The youths had no positive association to the word, which seemed to them a meaningless term used by adults for hypocritical purposes. School had afforded little chance for real impact on decisions that mattered, opportunities to learn in action the meaning of the word democracy. Both community and democracy can be taught through experience in the classroom, when schools consider these goals part of the curriculum and invest energy in building related skills.

“For the neo-Nazi youths, the teaching in school of multiculturalism had been another adult exercise in hypocrisy. Black History Month was an annual annoyance. It is easy for an adult-led discussion to seem like sermonizing.” (65)

IV. “Decide for Peace or War:” How Hitler was normalized

This is the fourth in a series:
Pt. I: "This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:" Popular science, their conspiracies, and agreement is all we need
Pt. II: "A source of unshakeable authority:" Authoritarian rhetoric
Pt. III: Immediate rhetorical background

From a September 3, 1944 tapped conversations of two Nazi Generals who were British POW, discussing when the German military should have refused to follow Hitler’s orders:

Hennecke: It should have been done in 1933 or in 1934 when things started.

Müller-Romer: No, the running of the state was still all right at that time. (From Tapping Hitler’s Generals 98)

The argument goes on for a while. Müller-Romer’s argument is that the political outcomes were just fine in 1933, and they should have waited till the political outcomes were worse. Müller-Romer says that “it wasn’t so bad before the war,” and Hennecke points out it was, that 1933 had the jailing of Hitler’s political opponents. Hennecke’s most important argument was that political processes were set in place in 1933 that virtually guaranteed horrific political outcomes eventually. Hennecke was right.

In 1933, Hitler set in place the criminalization of dissent, a propaganda machine, and a single-party state—those are governmental processes of authoritarianism. Hennecke was trying to argue, once those processes are in place, then, if the policy outcomes are bad, dissent is impossible. People have to protect, even in times when they like the policy outcomes, the processes they will need to be in place when they don’t like the policies.

Basically, anyone who took until after 1933 to realize Hitler was an authoritarian nightmare is someone who supported Hitler when it mattered. Realizing in 1939 that supporting Hitler was a mistake means that you’re thinking in terms of outcome and not process. Realizing in 1944 (as many of his generals did) that they had been backing the wrong horse is craven ambition—obviously, it’s only losing that hurt.

So, let’s assume that Hennecke was right, and 1933-34 was when the military should have tried to lead a revolt against Hitler’s dictatorship. Why didn’t they see that at the time? Whey didn’t most people?

They didn’t because Hitler, in March 1933 (and 1933 generally) was normalized. People who had fought against him now actively supported him, rationalized the violence of his supporters, insisted that he was at least better than the opposition, and believed that he was sincere in his professions of Christian faith (despite all appearances). The only group to vote against the act than enabled his dictatorship was the Social Democrats (democratic socialists; the communists would have voted against it, but they were banned or arrested). A rabidly factionalized press spun the situation as his being in control and decisive and finally doing the things that liberals had been too weak to do–such as cleansing the community of criminal elements. And those talking points were repeated by people who normalized behavior they had been condemning just months before.

People who think they would never have supported Hitler believe that they would never have supported a leader who pounded on the podium, screaming for the extermination of various races and an unwinnable war against every other industrialized country. And that’s what they think he did because, prior to 1933 (one might even argue late 1932) that was what he did. So, one way to think about the rest of this post is whether that test—I would never have supported Hitler because I would never have supported someone who advocated genocide and world war—is a good one for thinking about his March 23, 1933 speech. And the answer is that it isn’t.

The speech was part of the Nazi’s goal of establishment a one-party dictatorship, something that would be achieved in what was called “The Enabling Act.” They needed a 2/3 vote of the Reichstag, and a special election had been called for those purposes. They didn’t get 2/3, so they banned and arrested the communist leaders and declared they only needed 2/3 of the non-communist votes. That was a violation of the constitution. But, by the time Hitler spoke, they had done the math and knew the outcome.

Hitler’s speech was in the context of what Aristotle called deliberative rhetoric. There was a policy on the table, and so it would be expected that Hitler would engage in policy argumentation to support it (short version: he didn’t, and that’s important).

This was the Reichstag—the major deliberative body of Germany—and it was considering a major policy change; thus, in a healthy rhetorical community, Hitler’s speech on March 23, 1933 would have been deliberative rhetoric. He would have had to argue why the “Enabling Act” was an effective and feasible solution to real problems that would not go away on their own, and that the act would not involve solutions worse than the problem. He would have had to make that argument acknowledging the multiple policy options available, and to a community that was familiar with multiple sides and who insisted that he be fair to all those sides.

But Germany wasn’t a healthy rhetorical community. That isn’t what he did. He gave an epideictic speech, with bits of judicial. He didn’t engage in policy argumentation. Hitler’s speech has the overall structure of need/plan, but not in a policy argumentation way—it’s more like a skeezy sales pitch. Skeezy sales pitches have a rough need/plan organization, but the need is that you’re kind of a bad person and the plan part of the argument is that my product/company/election will solve that need thoroughly and completely. That rhetoric always begins by making the consumer slightly uncomfortable (insecure, ashamed, or worried), but with an implicit promise that they could be better. Pickup artists call it “negging” (“You would be pretty if you smiled”). And then the product is offered that will solve the problem; with pickup artists—and Hitler—the solution is the person. He didn’t engage any of the other parts of deliberative argument (consideration of multiple options, solvency, feasibility, unintended consequences).

Overall, Hitler’s argument was: things have been bad in so many ways, and real Germans have been consistently screwed over and ignored in our political system. The major decision-making body has been paralyzed by political infighting by professional politicians who haven’t been paying attention to the kind of people (in terms of race and religion) who are the real heart of this nation. Our relations with other countries have been completely lopsided, and we’ve been giving way more than we’ve been getting. We aren’t a warlike people, and we don’t want war, but we insist on the right to defend our interests. Liberals and communists are basically the same, in that liberalism necessarily ends up in communism. Situations are never actually complex, but people who benefit from pretending they’re complicated will say they are (teachers, experts, governmental employees, lawyers). The correct policies we should be pursuing are absolutely obvious to a person of decisive judgment—being able to figure out the right course of action doesn’t require expert knowledge or listening to people who disagree. The ideal political leader has a history of being decisive. And that person cares about normal people like you who are the real heart of Germany, and it’s easy for someone like you to know whether the leader has good judgment and cares about you—you can just tell. There is one party that supports the obviously correct course of action, and we should try to ensure that party has control of every aspect of government, and that there will be no brakes on what that party decides to do.

So, how does he do that? And why does it work?

He begins the speech with a vague reference to the proposal. It’s a proposal for shifting from a parliamentary system to a dictatorship, but he doesn’t say that. He says it’s “a law for the removal of the distress of the people and the Reich” (15). He grants that the procedure is “extraordinary” (a state of exception, so to speak), and gives “the reasons” for it, and his “reasons” are a purely need/blame argument (more appropriate for a judicial speech) that goes from the beginning till about fifteen paragraphs in (in the English—in the German, it’s about twelve), until he says, “It will be the supreme task of the National Government…”

I mentioned that Hitler’s policy solution was himself, and he sets up that solution by how he describes the problem. His argument is that Germany is undeniably in the most awful situation ever. And we are in the worst imaginable situation possible (hyperbole that makes him seem to be completely on their side—his commitment to the ingroup is extreme) for three reasons: first, the country has been led by Marxist politicians who are incompetent, deluded, just looking out for themselves, and/or actively villainous; second, the moral, political, and economic collapse of Germany “is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate;” third, the “infirmities” of our life means that nothing is getting done because we’re in a deadlock: “the completely irreconcilable views of different individuals with regard to the terms state, society, religion, morals, family and economy give rise to differences that lead to internecine war” (16). Those last two are especially significant, in that they signify what kind of policies Hitler would enact. His argument in those two is that there are “defects” in our national life, especially views “starting from the liberalism of the last century,” that have inevitably led to this “communistic chaos” (16). There are political views, he says, that enable the “mobilization of the most primitive instincts” and end up in actual criminality. He’s equating disagreement and violent political conflict, and blaming all that on the presence in the community of a defect that will necessarily end in Soviet communism.

This whole argument of Hitler’s simultaneously promises stability—an end to disagreement and political paralysis–while ignoring that his own party was one of the major causes of the political paralysis, violence, and criminality of Weimar politics. Thus, this whole part of his argument is projection and scapegoating.

For instance, one of those “reasons” that his dictatorship is necessary is that it was the 1918 Marxist organizations that committed “a breach of the constitution” putting in place a revolution that “protected the guilty parties from the hands of the law.” These Marxists, according to Hitler, tried to justify what they did on the grounds that Germany was guilty of starting WWI.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all of his claims are true (they aren’t).

Why in the world is he even arguing about who is to blame for the loss of WWI? Even if the Weimar democracy was created by evil witches who mistreated bunnies and shoved little old ladies out of the way in crosswalks, that wouldn’t make his dictatorship a good plan. The Weimar dictatorship might have been Marxist (it wasn’t), it might have been disastrous (its major problems were Nazis and Stalinists), it might have lied about WWI (it didn’t), but even were all things true, it still wouldn’t necessarily mean that Hitler’s becoming a dictator was the right solution. It isn’t even clear that the actions of the people who put in place a democracy at the end of WWI were acting in an unconstitutional way. But it was absolutely clear that Hitler was.

He needed 2/3 of the Reichstag vote to get the Enabling Act passed, and he didn’t have that number. So, he had Marxists arrested and prevented from entering the chamber, and he decided on an interpretation of the constitution that said that, because he had prohibited their entry, their numbers didn’t count toward what amounts to quorum. (That isn’t what the constitution said.) So, Hitler’s hissy fit about what “the Marxists” did in 1918 isn’t a very accurate description of what they did, but it’s a perfectly accurate description of what he was, at that moment, doing. That accusation of unconstitutional action was projection.

His whole argument about violence and paralysis was also projection, since the violence and refusal to compromise (the cause of the paralysis) came from both the Stalinists and Nazis. Hitler’s argument is the pretty standard argument for people who think they’re totally and always right (that is, authoritarians): our problem is that you are disagreeing with me. The conflict would stop if you just agreed with me.

Hitler’s argument can be summarized in what, following Aristotle, people call an enthymeme. “My dictatorship is necessary because the Marxists are just awful.” Hitler was relying on the tendency a lot of people have to decide that a conclusion must be true if they believe the evidence is true. (It’s how most, maybe all, scams work.)

Hitler’s kind of argument takes it one step further than even skanky associational arguments go. He’s saying that, if the economic disaster of post-war Germany can be associated with Leninist-Marxists in any way, then they caused it, and therefore Hitler’s dictatorship. His argument is “My dictatorship because MARXISM!!!” (Notice the slip between Leninist-Marxism and Marxism.) That isn’t a logical argument, but associational. Even were it true that the “Marxists” were responsible for Germany’s post-war plight (as opposed to the war itself being the problem), then the “solution” isn’t necessarily Nazism. There were lots of other economic and political systems opposed to Marxism.

After all, liberal democracy is opposed to Marxism (liberal democrats are the first people up against the wall, as Marxists so charmingly say), as are democratic socialists (who accept some aspects of Marx’s critiques of capitalism, but oppose—unhappily often with their lives since Soviet Marxists call them liberals—Soviet Marxism and generally any kind of violent revolution), non-Soviet Marxism (Trotskyites, for instance), non-Marxist kinds of communism, the odd monetary model long promoted by the Catholic church, mercantilism, and even various other kinds of volkisch and reactionary groups. Nazism had a lot of opponents; it wasn’t the only choice other than Soviet Marxism.

So, what Hitler did was to scapegoat Marxists for Germany’s post-war situation, and associate every political party opposed to him with Marxists. [1]

Calling the people who instituted the Weimar Constitution “Marxist” is a deliberate smear—it’s just insisting that everyone to his left (and most were) is Marxist (a not unheard of tactic in our own era). It’s an equation he makes later in the speech, and made consistently in his rhetoric—he characterizes all forms of non-authoritarian governments as Marxist.

That’s a kind of argument that appeals to people who can’t manage uncertainty, ambiguity, or nuance and see all members of any outgroup as essentially the same. When we are in fight or flight mode, we are drawn to binaries. Something is good, or it is bad. Something is right, or it is wrong. And, since they think in binaries, people drawn to that way of thinking believe that you either believe everything is right or wrong or you believe it’s all good. [2]

Such people would really like Hitler’s speech, since he presents the situation as absolutely black and white. I said that he presents himself—not a set of policies—as the solution to their problems. He says, it is obvious what needs to be done; it is obvious that our bad situation is the consequence of politicians who were either “intentionally misleading from the start” or subject to “damnable illusions.” They were just looking out for themselves, giving people “a thousand palliatives and excuses.” They just made promises they never kept.

He doesn’t argue that his (vague) policy is the best policy choice; he’s arguing that “Marxists” caused all of Germany’s problems and concludes from that claim that his dictatorship is necessary. That’s a fallacious arguments in many ways. The logical form of Hitler’s argument is, as I mentioned, “My dictatorship is necessary because the Marxists are just awful.” Hitler’s dictatorship is in opposition to Marxism, and Marxism is bad, so his dictatorship is good. If you put that in logical terms, you have “A is necessary because not-A is bad.”

There are a lot of “not-A” out there. Were Hitler’s argument one that appealed to premises consistently, then he would also have to endorse this argument as equally logical: “Making my dog Louis a dictator is necessary because Marxism is bad.” After all, my dog Louis is also not a Marxist—he is not-A. Therefore, he would be just as great a leader as Hitler.

He wouldn’t be a great leader at all. He would mostly eat things, and demand a lot of walks. Whether he would have been a better leader than Hitler is an interesting question—he probably wouldn’t have been worse—but that wouldn’t make him a good leader. Yet, Hitler’s argument would apply as logically to Louis as it did to Hitler: after all, Louis would be a great leader because Marxists are bad doesn’t have any worse a major premise than “Hitler’s policies are good because Marxists are bad.”

And, let’s be clear: Louis is VERY opposed to any kind of Marxism.

And, really, that was Hitler’s argument, and that’s all it was. His argument wasn’t logical—he never put forward a major premise to which he held consistently. His argument was always “What I propose is good because I am good (decisive, caring about you, looking out for real Germans/Americans, not a professional politician, successful), they are bad,” and as long as he could rely on his audience not to think too hard about that major premise (“anyone who is decisive, caring about you, looking out for real Germans/American, not a professional politician, successful is proposing good policies”), then he was fine. And, I’ll point out again that Louis is very decisive, he cares about everyone, he is protective of his pack, he is not a professional politician, and he is very good at his job.

Simply looking to whether a claim has support is cognition, and I’m saying that good deliberation requires meta-cognition, that people will look at how they are arguing. And that people don’t just ask themselves whether an argument seems true to them, but whether they think how it’s being made is one they would consider good regardless of ingroup/outgroup membership.

Metacognition requires stepping back from an argument that justifies what you want to believe (what is called “motivated cognition”) to thinking about whether you would think your way of thinking is wrong if someone else did it. And that is the problem with the “I don’t care if it’s logical, I just know it’s true” line of argument. Do you endorse that kind of argument when other people make it? Only when they get to your conclusions. So, that method of making decisions (Hitler’s, by the way, and most authoritarians) is about ingroup loyalty, and it’s okay if your ingroup is magically always right, but there is always something mildly narcissistic about it, since it assumes your intuitions are perfect.

People who reason that way tend to favor people to whom they feel close, while, the whole time, they think they are being fair. Since they are unwilling to consider whether their method of reasoning is bad, they never notice when they’ve made mistakes. They sincerely believe their method of reasoning is good because it’s always worked for them. The question is: would they know if it was a bad method? Do they have a system for checking if their intuitions and feelings are bad? Yes, their method is to ask their intuitions and feelings whether their method is bad.

Albert Heim reported that Hitler had told him, “I don’t give a damn for intellect[–] intuition, instinct is the thing” (Tapping Hitler’s Generals 165). That fits with what Hitler said throughout his rhetoric—he insisted people trust him because his intuitions were so good that he could reject any expert advice that contradicted him. (Like most authoritarians, he endorsed expert advice that confirmed his views.) I like the term epistemological populism—something that “everyone” believes, even if it’s empirically false, is true because experts are just eggheads (unless they agree with you). You can appeal to the popular notion.

What the people who make that argument don’t notice is that their “common sense” is only “common” to their ingroup. Their “popular” notion (that this group is lazy, that that group is greedy) never includes all the groups who might have an opinion on the issue—when they say “everyone,” they don’t include the outgroup. It’s one of the subtle ways we delegitimate (and even dehumanize) the outgroup. When we do this, we aren’t trying to deletigimate or dehumanize them. It’s just that we take our ingroup associations and universalize them—since I think squirrels are evil, and I only hang out with people who think they are, then it will come to seem to me obviously true that “everyone” agrees that squirrels are evil. If Louis, who CLEARLY thinks squirrels are evil, runs for office, I will feel that he represents “everyone.” I can ignore the squirrels’ opinion on the issue.

If you like Louis (and, really, who doesn’t? he’s adorable) and he makes you feel good about yourself, then you will not hold him to the same standards that you hold other political figures. You will look for reasons to support him, and you will find them, (you are motivated to use your cognitive powers to justify his actions), and, so, you will think your support of him is rational since you can find examples and arguments to support your claims about him and his claims about himself.

But what you can’t find will be major premises that you will consistently endorse. Louis is great because he says he’s nice to you. The other candidate tries to be nice to you, but that’s just cynical manipulation on their part. Louis said something untrue, and so did that candidate. Louis was mistaken, but that candidate was lying.

Hitler played on that tendency brilliantly in this speech. Hitler made a set of claims his audience would like hearing: there is disorder, decay, uncertainty, and weakness. We don’t want to listen to any argument that Germany was to blame for WWI, or that we lost it, or that the Versailles Treaty wasn’t much worse than the treaty imposed on the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

What he said was, “You’re humiliated right now but you could be awesome with me as dictator.” Germans are humiliated right now but will be great once you put all power in me.” (Or, you would be pretty if you smiled.) Marxists are bad, and I am the kind of person who will impose order, end decay, never believe myself uncertainty, and will always be strong.

That claim involves the rhetorical strategy of projection. Whether Germany was at fault for the war is an interesting question (most scholars say yes, but very few say that only Germany was at fault), and whether the installation of the new constitution in 1918 was done in a constitutional way is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that Hitler’s pushing through of the Enabling Act violated the terms of the constitution. That move is called projection because it’s taking something you are doing and projecting it onto someone else—like a movie projector.

And it tends to work because it’s a particularly effective instance of the large category of fallacies involving a stasis shift (generally called fallacies of relevance). In a perfect world, we make arguments for or against policies on the basis of good reasons that can be defended in a rational-critical way (not unemotional—it’s a fallacy to think emotions are inappropriate in argumentation). But, sometimes our argument is so bad it can’t stand the exposure of argumentation, in that we can’t put forward an internally consistent argument. Saying that Louis would be a great President because squirrels are evil is a stasis shift—trying to get people to stop thinking about Louis and just focus on their hatred for squirrels.

Arguments have a stasis, a hinge point. Sometimes they have several. But it’s pretty much common knowledge in various fields that the first step in getting a conflict to be productive (marital, political, business, legal) is to make sure that the stasis (or stases) is correctly identified and people are on it. If we’re housemates, and I haven’t cleaned the litterboxes, and we have an agreement I will, then you might want the stasis to be: my violating our agreement about the litterboxes.

Let’s imagine I don’t want to clean out the litterboxes, but, really, it’s just because I don’t want to. I have made an agreement that I would, and when I made the agreement I knew it was fair and reasonable. So, even I know that I can’t put forward an argument about how tasks are divided, or who wanted a third cat and promised to clean litterboxes in order to get that cat. Were this a deliberative situation, I would be open to your arguments about the litterboxes, but let’s say I’m determined to get out of doing what I said I would do. I don’t want deliberative rhetoric. I want compliance-gaining—I just want you to comply with my end point (I don’t have to clean the litterboxes).

I will never get you to comply as long as we are on the stasis of my violating an agreement I made about the litterboxes, since that’s pretty much slam dunk for you, so I have to change the stasis.

The easiest one (and this is way too much of current political discourse) is to shift it to the stasis of which of us is a better human. If you say, “Hey, you said if we got a third cat, you’d clean the litterboxes, and we got a third cat, and you aren’t cleaning them,” I might say, “Well, you voted for Clinton in the primaries and that’s why Trump got elected,” and now we aren’t arguing about my failure to clean the litterboxes—we’re engaged in a complicated argument about the Dem primaries. I can’t win the litterbox argument, but I might win that one, and, even if I don’t, I might confuse you enough that will stop nagging me about the litterboxes.

[I might also train you to believe that talking about the litterboxes will get me on an unproductive rant about something else, and so you just don’t even raise the issue. That’s a different post, about how Hitler deliberated with his generals.]

Or, I might acknowledge that I don’t clean the litterboxes, but put the blame for my failure on you because your support of Clinton is so bad that I just can’t think about the litterboxes—that’s another way of shifting the stasis off of my weak point and onto an argument I might win.

Hitler’s argument shifts the stasis off of his weak points (whether he has pragmatic plans and just what they are) to ones he thinks he can win—that Marxists are bad, and that “real Germans” (the “volk”) are beleaguered victims of a political system that reward professional politicians for their dithering.

All that people know about Hitler’s policy is that he is abandoning democracy in favor of a single-party state that explicitly favors his party over others—the judicial system, educational system, arts, parliament, churches, science, and military will all be purified of anyone who isn’t fanatically committed to his political party.

Hitler is working on the basis of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” People who think in binaries also tend to assume that the binaries are necessarily logically chained to each other (which is why Laclau called them equivalential chains). So, for Hitler, there is a binary between “order” and “disorder” and that pair is necessarily connected to “his dictatorship” and “democracy.” Think of these terms as like the logic sections of some standardized tests that have questions like: “Tabby is to cat as pinto is to [what].” The answer is supposed to be “horse.”

Hitler’s argument is:

That chain of paired terms is what enables Hitler to get to what is actually an amazing argument for a purportedly Christian nation: that valuing fairness across groups is suicide, and part of a plot to weaken Germany.

And there’s a really interesting characteristic about this kind of argument. It’s normal for people to assume that an authoritarian state provides more order than a democratic one, and that it therefore is peaceful, but that’s an associational argument [strong father model], not an empirical or logical one. Authoritarian states take the conflict, violence, and chaos, and put them out of sight of “normal” people (which tends to get defined in increasingly small ways as time goes on). Empirically, and this was especially true in Hitler’s regime, authoritarian single-party governments have extraordinarily disorderly policies (they follow the whim of the person or people in charge), completely arbitrary applications of coercion, and they are systemically violence (think about how segregation operated in the Southern US).

But Hitler tries to equate his part with order, when the Nazis were the source of much (most?) of the disorder. The Freikorps engaged in random violence against Jews and lefties of various stripes. The Stalinist communists also engaged in violence, but there is no indication that democratic socialists, let alone liberals, relied on violence. So, the notion that Hitler’s party was opposed to violence just didn’t fit the situation, but his supporters appear to have followed it.

And they did it, I’d suggest, to the extent that they followed his associational chain. He chained various things together through association—order, authority, control, honor, true German identity, purification, peace, trust in him. He also throws in there victim/villain.

Logically, Nazis are not pure victims of violence. They were, in fact, murderers, thugs, and extortionists, but they were tolerated because the police and judges generally liked them (since their violence was against Jews and liberals). They got caught out in sheer murder (of Konrad Piezuch), and Hitler’s stance was that Nazi violence was always already self-defense. And Hitler’s chain of connections enabled him to connect Nazis to victims of violence. A reasonable description of the situation would have made Nazis mostly villains but also victims. Once you have a culture (or argument) that is only going to reason through paired terms, then Nazis are either victims or villains (in that world, you can’t be both). Since Nazis are connected to order, and order is opposed to violence (assertions Hitler made elsewhere in his argument) then, by the time he gets to Nazi murderers, it would seem “logical” to see them as opposed to villains (communists) so they MUST be villains.

And Hitler did sound more reasonable than he had in his beerhall speeches. He never said the word “Jew,” and only mentioned race twice. He didn’t say anything about Aryans, and talked a lot about the “volk.” For many people, the term simply meant “the people,” but for people steeped in the long and racist “volkish” literature, it meant the racial group that constituted true Germans. So, it was a dog whistle, unheard by many, but whistling up racism in others. Hitler used other racist dog whistles–he talked about decay, infirmities, the need to detoxify our public life, the “moral purging of the body corporate.” He called for greater spiritual unanimity, and ensuring that all art and culture would “regard our great past with thankful admiration” (19, emphasis added), so “blood and race will once more become the source of artistic intuition.” Someone who wanted to see him as a person who had changed (or who had never meant the racism) could point to the apparent absence of racism; someone who wanted to see him as the beerhall demagogue who would purify Germany of unwanted races could see him as someone who hadn’t changed.

But, or perhaps and, Hitler’s speech made a lot of promises that a lot of people who really wanted an end to the uncertainty of Weimar Germany politics would like to hear. The bulk of Hitler’s speech (where the plan should be laid out) is a series of vague assurances regarding the churches, the judiciary, economics (including his policies toward agriculture, the unemployed, and the middle classes, self-sufficiency), and foreign policy.

Those promises are:

  • Church. He calls for a “really profound revival of religious life,” implies he will not compromise with “atheistic organizations” and suggests that he believes religion is the basis of “general moral basic values.” He says his government “regard[s] the two Christian confessions [Catholic and Lutheran] as the weightiest factors for the maintenance of our nationality” and promises “their rights are not to be infringed” (20). He says the government will had “an attitude of objective justice” toward other religions, something Catholics and Lutherans would like hearing—that he connects the nation and their religion and doesn’t intend to put “other religions” on an equal footing with them (his audience would probably think immediately of Judaism, and possibly Jehovah’s Witnesses). Since Hitler was not himself a particularly religious person, and his organization had a lot of people in it openly hostile to Christianity, this alliance of his party with the two most powerful religious organizations would be reassuring, and it did seem to be persuasive (the Catholic political group voted for the Enabling Act).
  • Judiciary. Hitler was clear that he wanted a factionalized judiciary that didn’t respect the rights of all individuals equally (an Enlightenment value). The judicial system should, he said, make “not the individual but the nation as a whole alone the centre.” For him, the nation is the “volk” (discussed below), and judges should always put the concerns of the volk first—not abstract principles of due process.
  • Economics. Here Hitler was especially vague (which is saying something, considering how vague the whole speech is). He said he the government will protect the economic interests of “the German people” by “an economic bureaucracy to be organized by the state, but by the utmost furtherance of private initiative and by the recognition of the rights of property.” This was a clever apparent disavowal of the socialism that was central to Nazism in its beginnings, but one that wouldn’t alienate those people in the party who thought Hitler was still socialist (he would later have them killed).

He insisted on the importance of German agriculture, promised to use the unemployed to help production, told the middle classes that “I feel myself allied with them” (classic scam artist claim since he was actually a millionaire who didn’t pay taxes, and his policies wouldn’t help the middles class—it’s one of only two times he used the first person in the speech, which is rhetorically interesting), admitted that pure self-sufficiency was not possible, and then slowly moved into the more bellicose aspect of his speech.

When talking about the debt, he presented his stance as reasonable, in that he was simply insisting on fairness, a theme he drew into discussions of foreign policy. In the English translation, this section and the next (pages 22-23) have italicized text, in which he takes a strong stand toward other countries claiming that Germany’s policies were forced on them by the unreasonable behavior of other countries. And that theme leads him to what appears to be an absolutely clear statement of his policy.

For the Overcoming of the Economic Catastrophe

three things are necessary:–

  1. absolutely authoritative leadership in internal affairs, in order to create confidence in the stability of conditions;

  2. the securing of peace by the great nations for a long time to come, with a view to restoring the confidence of the nations in each other;

  3. the final victory of the principles of commonsense in the organization and conduct of business, and also a general release from reparations and impossible liabilities for debts and interest. (24)

People often mistake a set of assertions presented in what rhetors call “the plain style” with “a clear argument.” They aren’t the same thing at all, or even necessarily connected. A statement of Hitler’s policies would explain how authoritative leadership will create confidence—he’s got an associational argument, not logical one. An incompetent authoritative leadership (one that starts a war, for instance, or engages in kleptocracy) won’t necessarily stabilize conditions, and stable conditions won’t solve the worldwide depression. That’s a clear statement of a vague policy.

The second is simply a lie, but a comforting one, since Hitler’s previous rhetoric had been so war-mongering—that clear statement of a vague policy would make gullible people feel that Hitler’s previous rhetoric had just been to mobilize his base, or perhaps the responsibilities of leadership had sobered him. And, even did he actually mean it (he didn’t), Germany’s economic situation wasn’t the consequence of concern about war.

People love to hear that leaders will now act on common sense. We like to believe that our views are shared by all reasonable people, that the solutions to our problems are obvious, and that experts and eggheads should just be ignored in favor of what regular people believe. Appealing to his audience’s “common sense” also enables Hitler to sneak past the rhetorical obligation of saying what policies exactly he’ll pursue—a sympathetic person will believe he has, since they will now offer their own notions of common sense in the place of the policies he hasn’t mentioned.

Hitler promises he can achieve all these things, but not if “doubt were to arise among the people as to the stability of the new regime”—one of the ways he tugs on that set of chained terms. Stability and peace are linked, and in opposition to democratic deliberation. So, he says, he will continue to respect the Reichstag, but they won’t meet.

There is a jaw-dropping instance of strategic misnaming in his penultimate paragraph. He says (and it’s italics in the English): “Hardly ever has a revolution on such a large scale been carried out in so disciplined and bloodless a fashion as the renaissance of the German people in the last few weeks” (26). In fact, the violence of the previous weeks was unparalleled. As Richard Evans says, after January 30, when the Interior Ministry ordered that police no longer provide protection for opposition meetings, “Nazi stormtroopers could now beat up and murder Communists and Social Democrats with impunity” (320). As Evans says, in January, the Nazis “unleashed a campaign of political violence and terror that dwarfed anything seen so far” (317). Hitler is simply insisting on his version of truth—that his audience would know it to be inaccurate wouldn’t change their perception of it as “true” (that is, truly loyal to the group—what is called a “blue lie“), and it would make them see him as strong. And then we get the second time he uses the first person—having just uttered a blazing lie, he says, “It is my will and firm intention to see to it that this peaceful development continues in future” (26).

That sentence is so rhetorically brilliant that it is chilling. He is simultaneously threatening violence, renaming violence “peaceful,” and, because he’s claimed there wasn’t violence, giving himself plausible deniability. The dogs all perk up their ears at that very loud whistle, and the ministers of the Reichstag know that he is telling them either support the Enabling Act, or there will be civil war.

And he ends his speech with saying, “It is for you, Gentlemen, now to decide for peace or war.” And they did. They decided for war—one that would claim to be a war bringing world peace by exterminating difference.

In 1933, Hitler gained enough legitimacy to put in place authoritarian processes because 1) he managed to look enough less demagogic when arguing for the Enabling Act than he had during the previous years to make people think he had changed (or the demagoguery was all an act); 2) in the speech defending the act he promised a political agenda a lot of conservatives and reactionaries supported (ending the chaos of Weimar Germany, getting better deals in terms of treaties and agreements than the weak previous governments had gotten, protecting Catholicism and Lutheranism, protecting normal people, preserving peace, building the German economy, and just generally his being decisive, he also promised—in dog whistles—to purify Germany of immigrants and Jews); 3) appearing to be a better choice than Soviet communism (since all liberalism is communism); 4) the Catholics and Lutherans decided their political agenda was more likely to get enacted with him, and he promised to support them, although he’d never been a particularly good Christian prior to his election; 5) the political situation seemed to be simultaneously chaotic and paralyzed, and many people said it was because people like them had made bad choices, but Hitler said people like them were awesome and had never made bad choices and it was just evil politicians, and he wasn’t one, so they should trust him. (This point ignored that Hitler and his party had been crucial in making sure that democracy didn’t work.)

The whole “this person isn’t Hitler because I’d know Hitler” assumes that the Hitler of 1933 was a strikingly abnormal rhetor, and, certainly, Hitler’s rhetoric could be abnormal. When my students read Mein Kampf, they complain that he manages to be boring, enraging, and incoherent at the same time, and it’s an odd achievement for a text to do all three simultaneously—you’d think something enraging would at least manage not to be boring. Once we were using an online version that had skipped a page, and it took us a while to notice because the page jump made his argument only slightly more disconnected than usual. As mentioned earlier, the basic themes in Hitler’s rhetoric weren’t unique to him, and many Germans would have been consuming the same racist and militaristic rhetoric (even the lebensraum notion), but it was at least somewhat abnormal for a rhetor with major political ambitions to be so explicit and frothing at the mouth about them. But he was only that open until he was Chancellor.

So, the question of “Is this person just like Hitler?” generally appeals to a cartoon understanding of who “Hitler” was. It’s the wrong question. The question is whether they would have supported a leader who said: things have been bad in so many ways, and real Americans have been consistently screwed over and ignored in our political system. The major decision-making body has been paralyzed by political infighting by professional politicians who haven’t been paying attention to the kind of people (in terms of race and religion) who are the real heart of this nation. Our relations with other countries have been completely lopsided, and we’ve been giving way more than we’ve been getting. We aren’t a warlike people, and we don’t want war, but we insist on the right to defend our interests. Liberals and communists are basically the same, in that liberalism necessarily ends up in communism. Situations are never actually complex, but people who benefit from pretending they’re complicated will say they are (teachers, experts, governmental employees, lawyers). The correct policies we should be pursuing are absolutely obvious to a person of decisive judgment—being able to figure out the right course of action doesn’t require expert knowledge or listening to people who disagree. The ideal political leader has a history of being decisive. And that person cares about normal people like you who are the real heart of America, and it’s easy for someone like you to know whether the leader has good judgment and cares about you—you can just tell. There is one party that supports the obviously correct course of action, and we should try to ensure that party has control of every aspect of government, and that there will be no brakes on what that party decides to do.

If you would support someone making that argument, then Congratulations! You just endorsed Hitler’s argument in his March 23, 1933 speech!


[1] Again, not unheard of in our own time, and it’s done by people who get their panties in a bunch if anyone connects reactionary politics with other instances of reactionary politics—such as pointing out a possible connection between the SBC stance on gay marriage and its stance on segregation, or, perhaps, its formation and the connection to proslavery rhetoric. And, no, I’m not saying that everyone who now supports the SBC supports slavery. What I am saying is that the SBC has consistently gotten it wrong in regard to issues of race, and so maybe their exegetical method is flawed. If they keep getting an outcome that they later regret, maybe there is a process problem.

[2]They don’t live their lives that way, a point pursued elsewhere at greater length, but here I’ll just say that they will say something like “murder is wrong” and then have all sorts of exceptions and complicated cases. They manage to get dressed for work without being certain what the weather will be, and to pick a new show to watch without being certain they will like it (often, they just refuse to acknowledge the uncertainty).

When giving a reason isn’t reasonable: Associational and logical reasoning

If I tell you that you should do something that you pretty much already want to do anyway, and my reason is something you think is true, you might sincerely believe that I’ve given you a logical and reasonable argument, even if there is no logical relationship between my conclusion and my reason.

I might say, “You should vote for [the candidate of the party you always support] because [the candidate of the party you hate] did/said this bad thing,” you might feel you’ve been given a logical and reasonable argument. But that isn’t a logical argument at all—it’s just an appeal to rabid factionalism. It feels logical because you’re likely to believe that your commitment to your party is rational, and that supporting the other party is irrational.

But, whether you feel your position is rational or not isn’t actually a good measure. Is there a major premise that you would accept in the abstract, even if it didn’t get the conclusion want? And this statement doesn’t do that. This bad thing the other candidate did—is it something that would cause you to refuse to vote for your party’s candidate? If not, then you don’t have a logical argument; you have rabid factionalism.

If I told you, “You should clean my litterboxes because 2+2 = 4” you would probably catch the logical problem. But it’s no less logical than “You should vote for [the candidate of the party you always support] because [the candidate of the party you hate] did/said this bad thing.” Neither has a defensible major premise.

We don’t tend to catch the logical problems (unless we deliberately work at it) when we like the conclusion and the minor premise. If my evidence is associationally related to my conclusion (if you believe my evidence and you’re sorta open to my conclusion) you won’t notice that problem. If you’re feeling a little guilty about not doing enough around the house, or you feel you owe me a huge favor, then, suddenly, “You should clean my litterboxes because 2 + 2 =4” might seem like a “good” argument to you. It’s only good insofar as it seems to give you the justification to do something you were pretty open to do anyway. But it’s no more logical than it was when you didn’t want to do it.

Associational rhetoric works particularly well when we’re talking about an outgroup. Since we generally consider an outgroup icky, then an argument that says, essentially, “My policies are good because the outgroup is icky,” will genuinely seem to be a logical or reasonable argument, but it’s all association. (The outgroup might actually be icky and the policies disastrous.)

If you really like Chester Burnette as a candidate, and you loathe squirrels, and I say, “Chester Burnette is a great candidate because squirrels are evil!” the argument might seem “logical” to you. I’ve given you a claim, and I’ve given you a reason. I would probably follow up with lots of evidence about evil things squirrels have done. So, you could easily believe that your attitude about Burnette was totally logical.

But, what if Hubert Sumlin also advocated policies that would restrict squirrels? In logical terms, the “major premise” of the “Chester Burnette is a great candidate because squirrels are evil” enthymeme is… well, what is it? An enthymeme is supposed to be a compressed syllogism.

A compressed syllogism would have the major premise of “Everyone who hates squirrels is a great candidate,” a minor premise (the evidence) of “Chester hates squirrels,” and the conclusion that “Chester is a great candidate.”

Look at it this way. Imagine that I said, “Hubert Sumlin is a Nazi because he wears a brown shirt,” and you really don’t like Sumlin. You might notice he really does sometimes wear a brown shirt, and, of course Nazis did too! That’s associational thinking, because it ignores the major premise. That’s only a logical argument if you are willing to say that everyone who wears a brown shirt is a Nazi. You aren’t (or shouldn’t be, anyway), and you also either need to say that Hubert is just as good a candidate as Chester or else your argument isn’t logical.[1]

Associational reasoning isn’t necessarily bad. I happen to think it’s really helpful when you’re brainstorming, and it’s clear from the history of science that associational reasoning has had some tremendous benefits. But, like arguments from identity, it’s just one data-point. It is useful, but not sufficient, for democratic deliberation. It isn’t policy argumentation.

What’s useful about thinking in terms of logic and not association is that it helps us step back from what social psychologists call motivated reasoning. We can always find a reason to do something we want to do anyway—we are motivated to find reasons to support our ingroup, justify what we want to do, rationalize away something awful we’ve done. But being able to attach a reason to a belief doesn’t make a belief reasonable.

[1] Sometimes when I make this argument, people will say, “I don’t care if it’s logical to support Chester because he hates squirrels”—I just do. Well, that’s fine, but you don’t support Chester because he hates squirrels; you just support Chester. And just admit that your opposition to Chester’s critics is just ingroup loyalty–you don’t value fairness across groups.



Aristotle’s types of rhetoric

Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetoric (with, he admitted some overlap). Any kind of decision-making body (a group that is setting policies) should engage in deliberative rhetoric, or what is sometimes called policy argumentation. As Aristotle said, in deliberative rhetorical situations, people argue about the pragmatics of the situation—people try to get the best outcomes, and they make issues like honor secondary (or don’t consider them at all). Scholarship in rhetoric would go on to identify the really crucial ways that communities can engage in healthy arguments about policy, and it isn’t rocket science.

Let’s imagine that we’re deliberating about the problem of the litterboxes needing cleaning (I have three cats—they always need cleaning). A good argument about a policy has certain content rules:

  • you have to debate (and that means disagreement is crucial and helpful) about whether there really is a problem (the litterboxes are nasty);
  • whether it will go away on its own (inherency: they will not clean themselves);
  • whether it’s significant (yes, they’re nasty);
  • what policy options we have, and this is important, since faux deliberative rhetoric says there is Our Policy or doing nothing at all, when we always have a lot of policy options (we could hire someone to clean them, we could invade another country, we could rant at the cats about how much they poop, we could hope that quantum physics puts the poop in some other part of the universe, we could invest in self-cleaning litterboxes, we could let the cats out, we could make the catio more attractive for pooping, we could declare the problem of the litterboxes is part of the squirrel conspiracy and so the answer is to eradicate our property of squirrels, we could clean the litterboxes more often, we could have fewer cats, we could see whether people on the neighborhood mailing list who clearly have way too much time on their hands could be persuaded to use some of that time cleaning our litterboxes);
  • and then we assess those policy options in terms of feasibility (what it would cost to hire someone to clean the litterboxes), solvency (would invading another country actually clean our litterboxes), and unintended consequences (people who have way too much time on their hands and engage in long and useless threads about graffiti on the neighborhood mailing list would probably insist on ranting at us in person about how pretty meh graffiti on a wall means our thoroughly upper middle class neighborhood is just one mark from being the kind of sodomic drug scene you see in video games and that would mean hours of loss in productivity and maybe an assault charge against me).

Deliberative rhetoric is hard. It requires thinking you might be wrong, and it privileges long-term thinking. It requires that the people involved in the deliberation believe that all the groups in the discussion have shared goals, so it means a world in which some kind of value is more important than the short-term triumph of the ingroup, and it requires a world in which fairness is dominant as a value.

In judicial rhetoric the whole issue is determining what happened in the past, and who is guilty. Judicial rhetoric relies on binaries—someone is guilty or not, this person is the victim and that person is the villain. And it isn’t about causality; it’s about blame. Judicial rhetoric is always about people who do or don’t intend to do wrong. Deliberative rhetoric always has arguments about causality (this person or this movement or this action caused that thing) but it isn’t about intent—healthy deliberative rhetoric acknowledges that people will good intentions can make decisions with disastrous consequences.

Judicial rhetoric, however, needs to find a person to punish. It doesn’t matter whether punishing that person (or group) will lead to a good outcome. All that matters is attributing blame and then punishing. Deliberative rhetoric and judicial rhetoric get confused for a lot of people who spend their whole lives in judicial rhetoric, since they hear all causality arguments as blame arguments—if a butterfly here causes a hurricane to happen there, then the butterfly is to blame. That’s judicial rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric doesn’t blame the butterfly, but tries to figure out whether we could find processes that would keep a butterfly from being able to do so much damage.

Aristotle’s third category is epideictic, or ceremonial rhetoric. Aristotle says that kind of rhetoric is all about honor and dishonor. The classic (even classical) examples of epideictic rhetoric are a funeral oration or Fourth of July speech. A good funeral oration always presents the dead person as entirely honorable, an argument that not uncommonly involves skipping over some things (I once heard a Catholic priest say about a woman who had refused to attend mass for some twenty years, “She has a good Irish name, and so we know God welcomed her.”) More recent scholars of rhetoric have argued (correctly, I think) that ceremonial rhetoric creates an “us” (often, but not necessarily, against a “them”). Epideictic rhetoric says there is “we” and invites you to be a part of that “we.” It makes you feel good about that “we” and it generally (but not always) makes you feel angry about the “not-we.” A Fourth of July speech doesn’t invite you to consider complicated things about what “we” means for the US (unless you’re Frederick Douglass); it invites you to feel part of the “American” community and take pride in that.

Why we named a dog Marquis de la Fayette in 2004

When Chester Burnette died, and Hubert Sumlin almost died from grief, George Washington arrived on the scene and saved the day. George was the sort of pushy goofball that everyone loves–he had his faults. To his dying day (literally) we could not persuade him to leave strangers’ crotches alone, and his mission in life was to get to any kleenex in any available trash can (which, let’s be blunt, means I was an idiot to keep throwing kleenex in the trash). Someone told us his breed was “Austin Red Dog,” meaning he was one of the many combinations that ends up in a dog between 70 and 100 lbs., red-orange coat, sort of stand-up sort of hang down ears. (In George’s case, he had one of each.)
When we’d had George for about a month, we got a call from our vet’s office. If you’re doing the math, this means we got the call at the end of January when everyone in Austin is dying from cedar fever. This fever is particularly bad if you live in a place called Cedar Park–people are walking into walls either because of allergies or because of allergy medicine. Personally, I was on both. They explained that the local animal shelter (which, as I understand, has since been closed) had a limited number of cages for dogs; when they got additional admissions, they just euthanized whatever dogs were at the end. These end-cage animals were euthanized at our vet’s office, and so the vet’s office was calling the customers (aka “softies”) who might be able to foster some of the puppies who were in that last cage.
There was one, they said, that looked just like George. “Sure,” I said. [As an aside, you might note I did not ask my husband first. He has never upbraided me for this, although he could have.] The 12-week old puppy we got was an only slightly mini-me version of George. Even we often had trouble telling them apart. Feeling guilty about having landed my family with a foster dog without asking, I was determined I would find this dog a home. Instantly, we started obedience lessons, at which he was outrageously good, and I started asking everyone I knew if they wanted an adorable and smart dog. In the interim, he had completely bonded with George. He did everything George did, literally looking up to him. There came the question of what to call him. “Ha ha,” I said, “he follows George Washington around and looks up to him–we should call him Marquis de Lafayette.” I had forgotten that my son was in the midst of a revolutionary war geekocity (thanks, “Liberty’s Kids”), having just named our new dog George Washington. And my husband has considerable history geek cred. They loved the idea. “No!,” I said, “we’re in Texas–we need to name him Cowboy or Buddy or we’ll never find him a home!” I was outvoted.
I found him a prospective home–which wasn’t hard–after two weeks. He was, after all, smart and highly photogenic and the perfect size (headed for around 70 lbs.). The prospective parents were going to come over one Saturday, and the night before I told Jacob (six years old). Jacob didn’t throw a fit (which I might have been able to resist); instead, his lower lip trembled, as he tried desperately to be brave. I said, “Now, Jacob, we talked about this. We knew that he wasn’t going to stay with us.” He said, “Yes, I know, but good-byes are so hard.”
I fell back on the parental [blarghy blargh ohnowhatdoisaynow] filler, and said, “What do you mean by that?”
He said, “Well, we had to say good-bye to Chester, and then to Coolhand Luke [a very old cat who died during that January], and now to Marquis.”
I said, “Um, I need to talk to your dad for a minute.” And I went into the study, where Jim was playing a computer game. I said, “I think we’re keeping Marquis.” He said, “I know.” He didn’t even turn around or hit pause.

III. Immediate rhetorical background

In the 1932 election, nobody received enough votes for anything other than a coalition government. The far left refused to compromise with the moderate left, and Hindenburg and Papen were persuaded to bring Hitler in with an understanding that Hitler’s radicalism (and economic ignorance) would be moderated by conservatives. Papen was, according to Richard Evans, confident that Hitler “would surely be easy enough to control” (308). Hitler’s ascent to power was enabled by conservative elite, but not because they wholeheartedly agreed with his ideology: “The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex developments that led to Hitler’s Chancellorship” (Kershaw, Hubris, 424-5).

A large number of people had given up on Enlightenment models of democratic liberalism–public discourse based in reason, fairness, and compassion, that benefits from inclusion and diversity, and which presumes universal human rights, and which assumes that policy deliberation means a world in which no one ever completely wins or completely loses. They were hoping that a more authoritarian government would solve their various economic and cultural problems quickly and decisively, and Hitler certainly came across as decisive. Hitler promised “that he would subordinate class conflict and capitalist ‘laws’ to the common good of the nation–just as he would submit foreign powers and their domestic lackeys to resurgent German power” (Mann, Fascists 205).

The German government was in an extended crisis from July 1932 on, with Nazi violence against Jews and political opponents commonplace. It exploded in January of 1933, with what Ian Kershaw referred to as “this first orgy of state violence,” saying “the violence unleashed by Nazi terror bands against their opponents and against Jewish victims was uncontrolled” (Hitler 455).  Many people believed that the explicit antisemitism of his beerhall rhetoric was tacky, although not because they were thoroughly opposed to antisemitism. A depressingly large number of Germans (Europeans, really) believed that Jews were icky and weird, but they didn’t want them killed, or their businesses destroyed; they just wanted to ensure that Jews had a marginal role in government, and maintained a kind of second-class citizenship. When Hindenburg and Papen brought Hitler in to a coalition government, many conservatives were unhappy, but they thought it was a necessary compromise and perhaps Hitler would mature with responsibilities. The hope seems to have been that, although Hitler had long been advocating an extreme antisemitism and militarism, perhaps that rhetoric was just feeding red meat to the base, and he didn’t really mean it, or he could be persuaded to become more moderate if given power. And, besides, they said, he was a better alternative than Bolshevism.

Evans quotes the French ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, that conservatives expected (correctly) that Hitler would “agree to their program of ‘the crushing of the left, the purging of the bureaucracy, the assimilation of Prussia and the Reich, the reorganization of the army, the re-establishment of military service.” They believed that they could all those policies out of him and discredit him (315).

To quote Kershaw again:

“The working class was cowed and broken by Depression, its organizations enfeebled and powerless. But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximize their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organized labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome. The underestimation of Hitler and his movement by the power-brokers remains a leitmotiv of the intrigues that placed him in the Chancellor’s office.” (Hubris 425-6)

Mann says “highly committed militants, widespread voter sympathy, and elite ambivalence and weakness […] allowed the Nazi leaders to seize power with a mixture of coercion, electoral contest, and constitution manipulation” (Fascists 206). Then a crazed Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag, and the Nazis could put in place things they’d been planning for years. They framed the arsonist as a Jewish Bolshevist (he was neither), and used his actions to justify ending Germany’s experiment with democracy, and beginning its experiment with fascism.

On March 5, the Nazis were given a majority of the Reichstag in an election, and Hitler was able, on March 23, to propose an “Enabling Act“that would give him tremendous power and greatly reduce the power of the Reichstag. Since the Communist deputies were either detained or in hiding, Hitler could count on his proposal winning. The speech he gave was not necessary for getting the act passed, but it was necessary for legitimating his actions and, more important, legitimating him and delegitimating his oppositions and critics.

As with many political speeches, this one had what scholars of rhetoric call a “composite” audience. There were first, the conservative elites, who wanted assurance that he was not the beerhall demagogue who had roused his base to violence, and second, that base, who wanted more of the red meat he’d been feeding them for years, third, leaders of other countries who wanted to know what sort of person he was going to be (hopefully, a rational one), and, fourth, large numbers of people who may or may not have voted for him, but who wanted more stability, and who might have been somewhat worried about whether he was going to provide it.

He also had an international audience for this speech (it was reported in German and published in an official English translation). They were concerned that he was an irrational, self-aggrandizing, and impractical toxic populist, that he really meant to exterminate Jews, that he intended to default on German war debts. Given the violence unleashed by his being named Chancellor, and his insistence that Nazis be allowed to murder with impunity, the attacks on Jews, and the war-mongering of Mein Kampf, the international audience wanted reassurance that Hitler would calm the fraught and paralyzingly factional political situation of Germany, not go Bolshevik, be a responsible leader, and not actually act on the foaming-at-the-mouth antisemitism of Mein Kampf.

He had an autobiography in which he bragged about manipulating others, and that his major goals were to achieve world domination and a Europe (Germany) free of liberals, people who disagreed with him, and genetically-inferior beings (which included entire peoples, such as Jews, Romas, Sintis, and Poles, as well as categories of people whose behavior showed that they were genetically criminal, such as leftists, homosexuals, union activists). He needed to persuade his base that he hadn’t abandoned any of those values or goals, and he needed to persuade “moderate” conservatives that he hadn’t meant the things he’d said to his base in his autobiography or numerous speeches. He had to appear not as a beerhall demagogue, a Jew-baiter, and a man who had probably had an affair with his niece, but a responsible political figure, while not losing the persona of the Jew-baiting beerhall demagogue his base had come to love. He had to look as though he was open to reason, and as though nothing would move him. He had to espouse his irresponsible protectionist policies and appear not to.

His previous forays into extremism meant that the bar was pretty low for him to look responsible–he really just had to look as though he was less demagogic than he had been. And, in his first speech in the position afforded him by post-Reichstag fire political contingencies, he needed to square the circle of being passionately antisemitic, determined on world domination, and reasonably committed to peace and the status quo, but needing extraordinary measures of power. And he did it. He looked like a reasonable fascist.



II. A source of unshakeable authority

“We are determined to constitute a government which, instead of constantly wavering from side to side, shall be firm and purposeful, and restore to our people a source of unshakeable authority

When people believe that they would have rejected Hitler, it’s because they believe that since Hitler’s evil is now obvious to them, it would have been just as obvious then. That’s probably not true. People in the era were persuaded, especially after he took office, that he would just promote Germany, and they didn’t think there would be genocide or world war (for more on that point, see Backing Hitler and Letters to Hitler). As Michael Mann says, “Hitler would not have reached 5 percent of the votes if he had promised either a second world war or the murder of millions of Jews and Slavs” (Fascist 185).

In Mein Kampf (1925) Hitler had explained his goal of a lebensraum (living space) for the Aryan race. Germany would control all of Europe and the US, all lesser races in those regions would be expelled, exterminated, or enslaved, and all the land would be redistributed to Aryans in a kind of plantation system (much like Rhodesia). As Ian Kershaw points out, the basic concept “had been a prominent strand of German imperialist ideology since the 1890s” (Hitler 248). So, much like his racialist theories, this way of thinking about Germany’s “need” would have resonated with a lot of common rhetoric of the time.

Obviously, that plan involved world war and genocide, but people supported him who, at least initially, wanted neither. How did that happen? How were large numbers of people persuaded to ignore what Hitler had promised when he was campaigning? How did people who didn’t like Nazis for their extremism and eliminationist rhetoric decide supporting their candidate would be okay?

Hitler presented himself as a person who cared about regular people, who appealed to the dominant sense that democratic deliberation was inefficient and dominated by special interests. He presented himself as someone who could cut through the Gordian knot of government bullshit and get every real German what s/he deserved. He employed a rhetoric of brave victimhood (you are being brave despite being victimized by them), and incoherent vaguely religious scapegoating (that sort of racial, sort of religious group is in a vast conspiracy to exterminate you),that enabled aggressive action (expel or kill them all) as some kind of self-defense (with various rumors, myths, and misrepresentations of violence against the ingroup). And he had large number of media who would not only perfectly replicate the talking points created about him, but who would inoculate (in the sense it’s used in rhetoric) their consumers against opposition points of view.

Rhetorical inoculation is crucial to understanding how authoritarianism works. Just as giving someone cowpox (a weak version of smallpox) will enable them to resist smallpox if they encounter it, so presenting a person with a weak version of an ideology can enable their cognitive system to reject any argument of that ideology, even much stronger versions. While that might be useful for immunology, it is profoundly anti-democratic in that the whole point of it is to persuade citizens not to listen to anyone who disagrees. It says that you already know what they’re going to say, and it’s stupid. When it works, citizens don’t know any points of view other than their own, but they think they do, and so they’re making uninformed decisions while thinking they’re as informed as they need to be.

Inoculation ensures that we have a citizenry that is simultaneously un- and mis-informed about their policy options.

Authoritarianism works by saying there are two choices: our good set of policies (our ingroup) and everything else, and those two choices are obviously between what is good (rational, moral, clear) and what is bad (irrational, immoral, relativist). Authoritarianism works when it persuades people to make decisions on the basis of group identity. Authoritarianism also always says that the situation of the ingroup is so disastrous that we don’t have time for deliberation. In Robert Paxton‘s words, we are in an “overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions.” And Hitler could count on large parts of his audience believing that to be true—the German government really had had a hard time getting much done or solving its problems; it didn’t seem to be working. Its dysfunctional slough wasn’t the consequence of the depression alone. Mann says, “Germany was not in chaos; its depression was no worse than the American depression” (205). The German democracy wasn’t working because major political groups didn’t want it to work. The elites, Mann says, “still felt they had an authoritarian option” (205). Both the Fascists and Stalinists believed they were better served either the Fascists nor the Stalinists wanted it to work. They set fire to democracy and then insisted that democracy was unworkable because it caught on fire.

He could also count on the support of a lot of wealthy reactionaries and authoritarians, even ones who looked down on Hitler, because they were opposed to the higher tax obligations and restrictions on the rich that they thought social democrats would impose (who wanted a progressive tax to support a strong social safety net), and they felt threatened by the Bolsheviks. They were worried about losing their privileges (Mann). They thought that Hitler, who had a passionate (albeit profoundly irrational) base didn’t really mean what he said and wasn’t that extreme, would be matured by being in a position of power, or could be controlled. They just needed someone “to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it.”

Hitler said: We are not in a bad situation because of having made bad decisions in the past. WWI didn’t start because of Germany having decided to support Austria in a stupid bluff, and our invading Belgium was the fault of England, and it had nothing to do with nationalism and racism about the French and a political system that put too much power in the hands of an individual who might have poor judgment. We’re the real victims here. The Versailles Treaty is evil (and let’s not talk about the conditions imposed on France after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870), and we only lost WWI because of Jews (who are all Bolshevists, especially the capitalists, and who are sort of a race and sort of a religion, and don’t ask too much about that or the whole capitalist/communist thing).

For much of Hitler’s audience, that was tl;dr.

What he said was: you’re in a bad situation; it can’t be your fault. You’re a German, so it can’t be Germany’s fault. IT’S THE LIBERALS. Who are Jews. And Bolsheviks. And international financiers. ALL TRUE GERMANS AGREE. Our government sucks because it isn’t giving you the things you know you deserve, and it isn’t dominating every other country, and GOD WANTS US TO BE THE BEST, and democracy involves letting other people argue and they’re all wrong and so it’s a waste of time because the true course of action is obvious to every reasonable person and so ELECT SOMEONE WHO CARES ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU. And who will insist that GERMANY IS THE BEST. A strong man who will just walk into every international negotiation and dominate everyone and insist that they do what is best for Germany. As far as domestic policies, we need someone who gets people like us, who cares about us. Politicians who say it’s complicated are just trying to line their own pockets. Democratic deliberation is a waste of time–just hand over all the power to a guy who can get things done. And that’s me.

The fact is that that kind of political rhetoric never ends well, but it always looks as though it will. And it looks as though it will work out okay because it appeals to the sense that people like us are good, and so things that people like us support must be good.

I’m trying to make two points here: first, no one supports genocide or world war at the beginning, but we support policies that (unbeknownst to us) tend toward genocide and so authoritarians who think their authoritarian isn’t Hitler because s/he isn’t explicitly supporting genocide are thoroughly missing the historical lesson; second, Hitler’s success came about because he depoliticized politics–he said it wasn’t about political issues, but about whether he was the kind of person people could trust, and therefore they should hand all decisions over to him.

So, the fantasy that a lot of people have now–that they would recognize a Hitler were he to arise because they would never support someone who would advocate genocide and an obviously unnecessary war–is false in that it assumes that they would know what they know now about Hitler. Anytime an individual, institution, community, or culture comes to a disastrously bad decision (such as Germany supporting Hitler), the interesting question is not about the content of their decision (they supported Hitler) but about the process–what made supporting Hitler seem like a good decision?

We all would like to imagine that we would have been running slaves to freedom, hiding Jews, in a cell next to King in Birmingham, standing firm on the bridge in Selma, and that imagined version of ourselves is premised on our knowing what we know about how those actions turned out. Now, we know that slavery was wrong. But how do we know that? If we know that because we consume a lot of media that says slavery was wrong and the people involved in the underground railroad were good, then our method of deciding what is right and wrong is one–what our dominant media says is right or wrong–is a method that would have made us outraged if we had been raised in a proslavery culture.

So, if our method of deciding if something is right or wrong is just asking ourselves if the thing seems right or wrong then we would have supported slavery if we’d been raised in a proslavery environment. In other words, just asking ourselves whether something is right or wrong is a shitty way to determine if something is right or wrong.

Hitler persuaded people he could be trusted—if not trusted to do the right thing, at least trusted not to do the wrong thing, and the March 23, 1933 speech exemplifies how authoritarians do that.