Populism, rhetoric, nationalism, and history
The following is a loosely-based, but heavily extended, version of an edited tweet chain that started with this tweet.
It quotes a tweet by the “Rogue POTUS Staff” Twitter account @RoguePOTUSStaff, claiming to be run by public servants of different levels working in the White House and wanting to share first-hand experiences under Trump’s term as 45th president of the United States, which, in case the account ever gets deleted, said “14) Hate to temp Godwin, but can’t help but wonder “is what the Germans meant when saying that Hitler seduced them?””
It was the 14th tweet in a tweet chain starting with this tweet about the internal events around and after congress voted on and passed the second draft of the “American Health Care Act of 2017”, a.k.a. “Trump Care”, which, if also passed by US senate, will lead to millions of US citizens losing their medical insurance, and many more, especially minorities and lower-income citizens, having much higher costs than most of them will be able to afford.
At the time of writing this it is not clear yet wether it will become law, but the current version also defines several conditions like rape, domestic abuse or c-sections as pre-existing conditions, which gives health insurers a reason to raise insurance costs or even deny insurance completely. The health care bill currently in place — the “Affordable Care Act”, a.k.a. “Obamacare” — prevents any pre-existing conditions from being a legal reason to deny coverage or make it more expensive, but it has many criticisms within politics and throughout most of the US population, so the current nationalist government under Donald Trump sees the necessity to work on it.
EDIT: This tweet chain made it more obvious that this new bill, if it becomes law, will also raise victims of rape or domestic abuse fear even more of not getting the justice they deserve. Both of these crimes are heavily underreported already due to a culture of (often sexist) victim-shaming, and if victims now have to fear to lose, or not be accepted for, health insurance if they get raped or abused at home. If this becomes law as-is, victims of a crime they have no influence on will have to decide between possible punishment of the abuser, and definite problems with (further) health insurance. Needless to say, this enables rapists and abusers further more directly than indirectly.
An inspiration for this was an amazing, educating webcomic by Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman about the backfire-effect and how and why people protect their most basic assumptions — their “core-beliefs” — against any new information and arguments that challenge them. NSFW version, without slur words, here.
Also, spoilers to the outcome of Captain America: Civil War. Yes.
The current state of US-American politics made us, the germans, realize that not everyone back when Hitler was dictator of germany must have been a nazi. The current rise of right and nationalist parties reminded and educated us on what populism is, and how and why it works.
In any conversation, given enough time, someone will eventually make a comparison to nationalism of Hitler’s time, or Hitler himself. That’s the prediction of Godwin’s Law — and it’s only appropriate to cite in order to negate an argument aimed at killing the conversation, not when it actually is appropriate. We have nazis in power again. Literal nazis. Trump is a nationalist. The term “nazi” is short for its german translation. Using Hitler as an argument when talking about nazis like Trump today is as appropriate as when talking about the holocaust back then.
The relevance and validity of a statement and/or argument does not decrease by time since its last occurrence in history if the base principles didn’t change, and especially not by the number of times it has been used. Of course, neither of these things improve an argument either. A false statement stays false, no matter how often it gets repeated, and by how many people. It just makes it more likely to feel annoying if told to the same people, which is why those start to listen less to it, and stating lies over and over again, reminding people of this fact, gets abused to reach more people in order to spread these lies to a wider group of people. That way of arguing is rhetoric.
Godwin’s Law was never 100% reliably applicable (also because it’s a bit sarcastic on purpose), but introduced — and more often appropriately used — at a time when a new rise and danger of nationalism seemed impossible, or at least highly unlikely. Boy, were we gullible and idealistic. We underestimated the power of populism, and overestimated people’s education on rhetoric — and nazis. Or at least, how that education will decline over time, generations and geological distance from its first epicentre.
The fade of history
It makes sense to teach and talk less about WWII and those responsible over time in families, schools and media. Noone really needs to know specifics about the crusades or the inquisition today. Those times are over, there are very different, reconnoitred people alive now and we’re smarter, right?
Critical thinking, with the lack of it allowing rhetoric to work and populism abusing it, should always be taught, no matter the (seeming) current necessity, for prevention. It hasn’t much to do with intelligence, or even intellect. You don’t think about more complex stuff like this if you don’t experience its necessity or get told that — and why — it’s important to do so, and don’t question that people are inherently good and well-willing to everyone before you get abused in some way, or see it happen explicitly.
These days, less and less people experience that necessity themselves, or hear reasons for it in a plausible way. The reason for that is in itself a good thing: It means our society got less and less manipulative and more and more altruistic over the last few years! But not questioning this, because it doesn’t happen to you, leads to people being less aware of its — populism’s and rhetoric’s — implications, and possible, even historically-based likely, underlying premises.
Which puts the responsibility of education on this matter on those who are aware and educated, like with any more complicated topic. It’s the reason teachers exist, have special fields they teach, less on university-level, and why home-schooling is a very unsuccessful concept (if your goal is thorough, reliable education). Teaching “never again” is only reliable if you also answer the question “why tho”.
The most dangerous common misconception
We thought the crimes, cruelty, pain and sufferings of WWII and its aftermath would speak for themselves. They did for our generation, and even more so for those between us and WWII, as we had direct relatives and sound stories from that time.
My still-alive grandparents were young, but conscious children during the climax of the second world war, and experienced the cold war first-hand in its entirety. I have many friends and heard even more second-hand stories of people whose grandparents even fought, fell, went missing or got captured in battle, got deported and gassed or even survived the holocaust or had direct friends who did. It was impossible to get around WWII in germany and our geologically neighbouring countries, so pretty much all families have stories of suffering under nationalism to tell, if the grandparents weren’t compassionate, convinced nazis, still are and carried that through every generation until today (which is really few).
But that only works to this extent in germany, and to most of it in France, UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, Japan, Poland, Austria, Suisse, Luxembourg, Russia, and families in the USA with historic military background, and also only for 2–3 generations. Do you even know the first names of your great-grandparents? Of your great-great-grandparents? Stories get told less and less, and less believably, given how many times they’ve been passed on and retold, which everyone who ever played Telephone / Chinese Whispers is aware of, but wouldn’t really fully believe until they’ve experienced it themselves.
Give people fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach those people how to detect rhetoric and how populism works and they’ll critically think forever.
Of course, that does take a generation or two to prepare, optimize, integrate, and eventually apply. Given how many of today’s governments are composed in many countries, including first world ones, and especially how the general opinions of candidates for the next elections look like, the people in charge who’d lose their jobs -> power -> money (and as a side effect, core beliefs) will do everything in their power — which they have the most of in our society — to prevent that. The US government made the first pre-emptive step by appointing a highly conservative and widely assumed unfit senator for the job as secretary of education. Nazis in power are usually aware of how populism works — and therefore, what its greatest threat is: Educated, intellectual, critically thinking voters.
So in order to teach future generations how to protect themselves from our and our grandparent’s mistakes, and to be able to teach that in the first place, we’ll first need to fix our current situations. That preferably shouldn’t happen over my, or anyone’s, dead body, which would happen with WWIII, or major civil war. You usually don’t have to kill people to change a political situation — usually, as my low-tier level of education tells me that the French Revolution was probably only successive due to the Assault on the Bastille. If the people in power have too much of it, the military under their control and few to none opposition with similar power, they tend to cling to that power, not giving it up without a fight. I am not convinced this is the case in any first world country — yet.
Violence in history
Assassination creates martyrs if there are any supporters left. Not killing “enough” of the current government puts who they assigned as “replacements” in charge — making (valid) use of the selective, purposeful killings and making it worse for everyone — and genocide is seen as what “the bad guys” did in every history book, surviving even the survivor bias and outliving generation’s stories and directed destructions of historical documents. Still, violence is not inherently evil, just as using logical arguments isn’t inherently good. Abusing the assumption of the second is rhetoric, but I don’t know if there’s a word for the second.
Putting Nelson Mandela in prison probably increased his chances of becoming president, and according to evangelic belief, Jesus had to die painfully in order to free believers from their sins. The people who applied that violence are considered “the bad guys”, and they are, because an ill intention, leading to eventual greater good, is still an evil intention. There are other examples too, though: Stauffenberg’s attempt at assassinating Hitler, even though it would’ve made Stauffenberg a terrorist, Hitler a martyr and put other, as dangerous people into power, is widely seen as heroic, and Schindler, lying and manipulating nazis and authorities in order to save jews, is an international hero and a sign of resistance against nationalism.
Both their methods, under those circumstances and also today, were and are considered “evil” and bad, and to be prevented, reported and punished, and they were (or had) if detected at that time, but today, history proved they were right, their intentions good and people praise them for their heroism — despite their methods. I am, and everyone should, be aware, that this logic of “history is gonna prove us/you right” can be, and is, abused by a lot of people today considered as terrorists, or nazis. The one thing they all share, though, is their core belief that some people — they, and/or the other followers of their belief or political orientation — are worth more than others, and that they use rhetoric to reach their goals, and recruit new followers.
That is also the reason terrorism gains more followers in lesser-developed, hence under-educated, countries. On top of that, terrorism is not just carried out in the first world; it’s not even the worst here: Near-east countries have occurrences of car bombs or suicide bombers in local news far more often than what we hear and have happen here at all, and even what of what happens there arrives here in some news outlets happens more often and usually killed more people. If something arrives at private people’s social media feeds it must have killed insane amounts of people, which, if that happened in Europe or the USA, would cause outrages in incomparable sizes — or that act of terrorism happened in Europe or the USA, killing amounts of people starting at one , which is, while bad enough, almost nothing compared to the number of lives terrorism takes in near-east countries.
Fight, and think for yourself.
This is a fight we all have to fight. This is a fight of whose outcome everyone will be effected. Engage politically as if you fought for your life, and that of your children: You do — literally. It’s a very extended form, it has huge input lag, which makes it harder to see. But if you think I’m wrong, challenge my argumentation, and tell me where I am. I don’t have the unquestionable truth, and I want you to build your own opinion, based on your own experience, but also based on new information, and conclusions.
I hope I am wrong. I hope this fixes itself, and noone will lose their health insurance and many subsequently their life. But I am aware of history, and due to being german, more than many private, foreign people casually can. I am aware that people, in their base principles of how they work, don’t really change. People don’t want to have to think too much, and prefer comforting lies over complicated truths, given the seeming importance of the matter.
Politics lost in relevance over time since nothing major happened for decades for what politics was to blame for. I get that — I was very uninterested in politics for the longest time, even didn’t vote once when I could and hate myself for it now. But current developments, times, rise of nationalism and obvious repeats of history prove that that time is over. Trump’s and Erdogan’s methods and behaviours, and that of their supporters, should ring all alarm bells for anyone who knows how Hitler started when he got into power, and how he got into power in the first place (Spoiler: His party won a democratic election and abused people’s tendency to not think much).
Also, I am aware there are people who think they’re worth more than others, since I’ve been treated like shit for no apparent reason (even though I’m white and male), and know many people who aren’t and got treated even worse just for being different — trans, gay, black, female, poor. That core belief, finally, leads to nationalism, declining education on their methods leads to them rising, and, given smart enough people applying it, leads to them achieving power.
Today’s and historic nationalism
German politics also has nationalist parties, the NPD and the AfD, the latter of which even has considerable power in several states now, with national elections scheduled to come up in a few months. They likely won’t win, since the CDU is right, or at least not left “enough” for many people, we have less people who just want to fuck shit up and we have more education on nationalism, populism and rhetoric. But that is just because we’re closer to the historic crimes and ways of nazis. Still, time is a problem here, too. Thus, nationalism is on the rise again here, too — just not as successful as Trump in the US or Erdogan in turkey, for reasons stated above. As time progresses, holocaust memorial sites close or get visited less by classes and national memorial events/holidays lose relevance, they’ll gain more power, just slower.
It used to be an essential part of german school education and upbringing to visit actual concentration camps once or twice and was done by every scholar at least once during their schooldays; not so much anymore. Also, the USA and most other countries only have holocaust memorial sites, but not actual concentration camp sites. The reality that in the spot you are standing right now people got gassed, shot, rid of their dignity and begged for their lives is a whole other level.
Nationalism and its rise are a threat to everyone outside of their narrow, small-minded, short-sighted, arrogant world-view in every country in the world, and to the integrity of their supporters and leaders. Noone is safe against it if we don’t tackle the base problem: Lack of critical thinking. We can’t keep teaching historic events, we need to teach how they happened and especially why could happen, maybe even without definite mentions of historic events altogether in order to prevent false assumptions.
I know as if it was yesterday that we listened to lectures about the holocaust and Hitler and said, openly and in the break after, how cruel all of it was, that we would have never let it happen — but that it won’t anyway, since we’re smarter and better than that. We thought of ourselves as if we all would act like Schindler or Stauffenberg, or at least hid Anne Frank in our closet. “Peer pressure has limits”, we said, as we all got our smartphones out and I got excluded again, and we never wasted another thought on it. We thought that we would have just known that what happened was bad, and would’ve been able to realize it at some soon-enough point. We thought that all people back then must have been retarded and evil. Everyone back then, except those few heroes we learned about, must have been nazis. I don’t think I have heard the words “rhetoric” and “populism” until I got out of school, and I definitely didn’t get taught what they mean, and even less how they work.
If we have WWIII and anyone survives, people will have another great, fitting and more recent historic example. Which will, again, fade in (public) relevance over time, and the stories about it will lose soundness, as unavoidable for word-based transfer of information which is highly compressed. Movies, audio recordings and pictures are less-compressed ways of transferring information, but we had those back in Hitler’s days, too. Recording stuff was less common back there, so the only “real” new thing now is the frequency and thoroughness of recording especially important events and availability of them, which also applies to personal stories, but that would likely only extend the time until eventual WWIV where it happens all over again.
New technologies and progress in science make it easier for us to educate us and spread ideas, but both of that can be and is abused by ill-willing people. I don’t even want to imagine what Hitler would’ve been able to do with the internet, or a more-intelligent Trump — and which destruction Hitler would’ve caused given today’s weapons and sizes of military. By now, I am highly convinced the only reason Trump didn’t go full Hitler yet is that he’s not able to, because Hitler already existed.
The difference between ill-willing and well-willing use of technology and spread of ideas can only be identified by thorough education on critical thinking. I don’t want humanity to repeat it all over again until we all go extinct by or have an epiphany after WWXXV. The nature of human minds should be the reason why we survived, not the reason why we went extinct.
If people learn how to critically think, and why that’s a good and necessary thing, they’ll make the links between historic and new nationalism and populism, rhetoric, and the “Some people are worth more than others” core belief themselves and will be able to detect early stages and signs of nationalism and/or new versions of that core belief early. Early detection is important everywhere, not just in medicine like for cancer. It also is for the intellectual & linguistic-transmitted version: Populism and rhetoric. It’s the same in blue.
Don’t listen to what I say. Especially not to how I say it. Take the arguments, facts and conclusions, compare them with your experience and that available online, research their integrity and build your own opinion — based on information, not on bias, not even on core beliefs as far as you can prevent it. Change of mind only happens if you came up with the new idea. It’s what populism abuses through rhetoric, by making you think you had the idea, but by giving you just enough and manipulated information they try to make you come to the conclusion they want you to.
Movies. …wait, what?
We’ve seen it in Inception; and even though it’s art, the principle is true. “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.” — V for Vendetta. Also a movie. Also true, in principle. Getting the core belief “critical thinking is an inherently good thing” into the heads of people is the only way to make this vicious circle stop that allows nationalists to abuse the lack of it.
It’s funny. Movies told us for a long time to use the weapons of our enemies against them. Let’s do it. Let populism suffocate on its own saliva, and that does not mean to literally take their guns, point them at themselves and shoot. That means reading up on and understanding them. It means to see the world through their eyes, why they do stuff and how they and their weapons work, not just what they accomplish. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.” — Captain America: Civil War. The intention was different, and therefore the result, but it works in this context anyway. We won’t topple nationalism, we will topple the notion to not have or want to critically think, and that will starve nationalism to death.
Zemo was a “great” nazi, or rather, a well-researched depiction of one. He was prevented from killing himself after failing (I don’t think it’s possible to include more resemblances to Hitler than they did without causing annoyed grunts throughout the movie theaters), but only after riling two great people up against each other. If it was for Tony “Iron Man” Stark, highly intelligent and with a great sense of justice, one would’ve died. He fell for Zemo’s rhetorical smoke and mirrors.
Their fight only didn’t result in the death of one of them (or Steve’s friend Bucky, presented as The Enemy by Zemo as a perfect example of a straw-man) because Steve “Captain America” Rogers has an insane level of integrity. It was the only thing that the experiment on him wouldn’t be able to touch, which is why that was by far the most important criteria for choosing him: He needed to have this integrity from the get go so he won’t abuse his new power once he has it, like the Winter Soldiers did who got a very similar injection. They were more meant to be used as weapons, because they got brain-washed into being controllable, conditioned soldiers, but only because if not, they had overthrown anyone who’d have tried to control them.
Applying to reality and current times
It’s how we should choose our politicians. Check for integrity first, then give them power. Because once people have it, but not integrity, they show themselves as Hydra. Nazis. The whole Hydra-trope by Marvel has been an obvious nazi display for its entire existence; too obvious, for some people. They complain about Marvel shoving nationalist’s evilness down our throats because it was done so often, but again, statements don’t lose any validity just due to the number of times they have been repeated. I think now is the time to learn from art’s and history’s lessons, adjust them for current reality wether they’re based on fiction and/or history, compare all that to actual history and facts and try to achieve Steve-Rogers-levels of integrity. All of us. There are no memory-changing super powers in real life.
There is, again, fade of memories and decreased relevance of history. But principles never really change; less, the more basic you get. Any computer-program, no matter how good it looks and complex it works, is ultimately based on very simple equations based on zeros and ones, but every new, higher level of using these equations make computers, and eventually programs, more complex. Critical thinking is to know — not necessarily understand, but know — that it’s all based in binary workings, and no computer will ever do anything you, a developer of the app, the system you’re using or engineer who built the hardware, didn’t ever tell him to do. Even if it sometimes feels like that.
Critical thinking must become a core-belief for all of us in order to preserve humanity long-term, just like the fact that no human is worth less or more than another. The rest will base onto that. And then, I hope, we won’t ever have a world war again and can pay attention to comets trying to extinct us. As it looks now, we will take care of that ourselves without the need of a comet, brutal plague or any other unstoppable force of the universe.
I am highly convinced — 100% confident — that “human nature” is not an unstoppable universal force, inevitably leading to our extinction. AIs and aliens protecting us from ourselves were wrong. We can’t and shouldn’t wait for them to save us. We can do that ourselves. I believe we will progress. I believe in humanity. I believe we have a bright future. I believe we have a future. I believe in us.
All of us.