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“Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them”*…

 

Populists

 

We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His — it is almost always a “he” — are the politics of fear and rage. It takes a certain sort of personality to be a master of such politics. In the right — that is, the wrong — circumstances, such leaders emerge naturally. That is not surprising after a violent revolution. What is far more so is that such leaders have been emerging in well-established democracies.

We now see elected “strongmen” — actual and would-be — everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication. The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies; others, again, are not.

Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent US watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy. This decline occurred in all regions of the world, notably in the democracies that emerged after the cold war. Above all, it occurred in western democracies, with the US — the most influential upholder of democratic values — leading the way…

People want to believe a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world.  The estimable Martin Wolf unpacks the mechanism of “strong man” rule: “The age of the elected despot is here.”

For a different angle on the phenomenon the Wolf unpacks, one that speaks directly to Steven’s Pinker’s quote in the title of this post, see “Dialectics of Enlightenment.”

*”A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.

The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Consider also:

“Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

– Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995)

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Joseph Goebbels died.  One of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates, Goebbels was a student of the shaping of public opinion; he served as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  He was  a gifted public speaker, who was particularly adept at using the relatively new media of radio and film for propaganda purposes, emphasizing antisemitism, attacks on the Christian churches, and (after the start of World War II) the boosting of public morale.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. In accordance with his will, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor of Germany, serving one day in this post.  The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1968-101-20A,_Joseph_Goebbels source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Great necessities call out great virtues”*…

 

ksyndrome

Fatebenefratelli Hospital, Tiber Island, Rome

 

Behind the closed doors of the Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome was a ward filled with patients being treated for K Syndrome. This new and unfamiliar disease – whose name evoked Koch Syndrome (tuberculosis) – was a strong deterrent to the occupying Nazi soldiers who carried out routine searches of the hospital for Jews, partisans and anti-fascists. Fearing infection, the Nazis did not dare enter the ward, turning their attention elsewhere.

Patients in this ward had been hospitalised and classified as suffering from K Syndrome in late 1943. On 16 October of that year, the Nazis combed the Jewish ghetto and other areas of Rome, deporting about 1,200 Jews. Only 15 survived the camps. After this, the hospital’s doctors and friars welcomed ever-increasing numbers of patients. These patients were, however, refugees. K Syndrome was an invented illness…

The remarkable story of hundreds hidden from the Nazis: “K Syndrome, the Disease that Saved.”

* Abigail Adams

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As we admire audacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1932 that Germany held a Presidential election.  With six million unemployed, chaos in Berlin, starvation and ruin, the threat of Marxism, and  a very uncertain future, the German people turned to Hitler by the millions.

Incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg was 84 years old and in poor health. Never enthusiastic about the presidency (or public office in general), Hindenburg had planned to stand down after his first term. But the prospect of Adolf Hitler being elected President of Germany persuaded the reluctant incumbent to seek a second term.  In the first round of voting, Hindenberg received 49.6% of the vote, just shy of the majority necessary to avoid a run-off.  Hitler polled 30%; Thälmann, the Communist candidate, 16%, and other candidates, 7%.

Hitler took to the skies, criss-crossing Germany by airplane in the run-off campaign.  He raised his total to 37% of the vote.  Although Hitler lost the presidential election of 1932, he achieved his goals when he was appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933.  Then on February 27, Hindenburg paved the way to dictatorship and war by issuing the Reichstag Fire Decree which nullified civil liberties.  Hitler succeeded Hindenburg as head of state upon Hindenberg’s death in 1934, whereafter he abolished the office entirely, and replaced it with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Reich Chancellor”), cementing his rule.

170px-Reichspräsidentenwahl_1932_-_1._Wahlgang

1932 Ballot

source

 

Written by LW

March 13, 2019 at 12:01 am

Putting the “bust-er” in filibuster…

The Taiwanese Parliament, upholding the tradition that won it the igNobel Peace Prize in 1995, when their citation read:

The Taiwan National Parliament, for demonstrating that politicians gain more by punching, kicking and gouging each other than by waging war against other nations.

As we prepare for the weigh-ins before the November elections, we might recall that it was on this date in in 1938 that Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact– and sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia, virtually handing it over to Germany.  Back in Britain, Chamberlain declared that the meeting had achieved “peace in our time.”

Rather, by formally ceding the Sudentenland, the Pact granted Hitler and the Nazi war machine 66 percent of Czechoslovakia’s coal, 70 percent of its iron and steel, and 70 percent of its electrical power, and thus, in short order, control of all of Czechoslovakia–  which, by the time Poland was invaded, a year later, had disappeared as an independent nation.

Chamberlain, who had thought Hitler’s territorial demands were “not unreasonable,” and Hitler, a “gentleman,” was ruined as a political leader.  He was hounded from office, to be replaced by Winston Churchill who later observed, relevantly to both subjects of this missive:

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
speech in the House of Commons (November 11, 1947)

source

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