On the consequences of fear-driven hate

A review of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning Timothy Snyder

I originally reviewed Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder back in April 2017 here, but with everything that has happened in the past year and a half, I find myself coming back to this book over and over. I haven’t re-read it, but because the issues it covered are becoming increasingly prevalent, I decided to go back and listen to my original, raw recording of my thoughts. It’s scarier than I thought, so here are my thoughts on the book today.

Black Earth is about how (and why) we should look at the Holocaust not as history, but as a warning — what we did then is relevant to what is happening today. It’s about how when one group deems another group as “other” in order to blame them for a lack of so-called comfort (clothes, food, and shelter aren’t enough — here, comfort really means economic status), a form of statelessness is created. With statelessness, individuals no longer have any protections, and without protections people can go after “others” in any way, shape, or form. The more “others” you have, the more folks you have to blame and attack.

This is something we are seeing now, and the tactic isn’t new. If we take a look at racism or the Muslim bans or how some (socially and through policies) treat the poor and women, we’ll see that these are all ways to blame another group for what one perceives to be lacking. In reality, life is not a zero-sum game, and one person’s comfort does not take away from another’s unless policies and social practices are put into place to make it so. But, it is so. It is what happened then, and it’s what we see happening now. It wasn’t that everyone turned evil, so much as that when living in a form of statelessness, individuals defaulted to survival mode and did what they needed to do to survive in a system that pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend.

That’s the scary part — we’d like to think this could never happen in America, but we see it every day. From the call-out culture that divides those who have more in common than not to the hyper-partisan divide that stifles most meaningful conversation, we live in a country that… increasingly pits neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend.

The mindset has become, “I have what I have because I worked hard and am extraordinary, but if I don’t get what I want, it’s <insert group>’s fault.

In addition to a lot of discussion about statelessness, Black Earth also dives into military history with regard to the double occupation of Poland, the conflicts with the Soviet Union, and efforts to send Jewish people to Palestine to create a Jewish state (something we are still seeing the impacts of today). It also dives into colonialism and the devastating impacts of larger, first-world countries going into third-world countries to extract resources.

One thing I learned that came as a surprise (or perhaps not, once I pondered it) was that Hitler was somewhat inspired by the United States’ advancement to the west during the Manifest Destiny — in other words, the conquering of native peoples. I found this interesting because it’s so easy to think that the Holocaust could never happen in America, and yet its earliest beginnings had a little to do (even if secondary) with how America treated Native Americans. This attack is something that is still going on today, albeit in a different manner, so clearly we have not learned as much as we think we have.

With all that said, I don’t know whether we’ll ever have another Holocaust. The sheer brutality, expansiveness, and international cooperation of it makes it unlikely that we’ll see it duplicated. But we have already gone down the path of creating policies and social norms that lend themselves to a similar fate. We are not beyond, and are very firmly ensconced within, the times of internment camps, shipping away “others”, and stripping the rights from those we blame for what we don’t have, whether it be through the lens of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Again, we have not learned our lessons. The mindset that led to the Holocaust is not only percolating and bubbling up, but is spilling over into modern discourse. The only difference is the “other” is a different group, and that group depends on where one sits.

With this mindset still present, it’s important to be vigilant in keeping ourselves in check. It’s not possible to say we don’t see race (at least not honestly), but we can choose to recognize this and react accordingly. We can’t say we don’t see gender, but we can check ourselves to ensure we are being productive and inclusive. It is easy to put others down, or to dismiss them based on a given trait, because our society encourages it. It encourages us to value the individual over the collective when it comes to our own individual needs, yet it simultaneously encourages the collective over the individual when it comes to “otherizing”. The mindset has become, “I have what I have because I worked hard and am extraordinary, but if I don’t get what I want, it’s <insert group>’s fault.” The two thoughts are incompatible, yet this cognitive dissonance is an excruciatingly effective way to keep certain groups in power. At the end of the day, individuals tend to value their personal security over the collective safety of others.

When we start sacrificing the well-being of others in order to preserve the individual, we see things like children being interred, families being ripped apart, and tear gas being dropped at the borders.

We saw this with the Trump election and we see it in the policies that have come since then. America has become, at least if we rely on the majority of folks elected to and still in Congress, a country that is scared. We have a leader who is collaborating with other countries for ulterior reasons (fear of inadequacy), a large swath of the country who blames Muslims and immigrants for a lack of what they consider to be comfort (fear of losing status), and policies that destroy families deemed less worthy (an extension of the fear of losing status).

When we start sacrificing the well-being of others in order to preserve the individual, we see things like children being interred, families being ripped apart, and tear gas being dropped at the borders. Why? Because their collective safety and right to live is superseded by individual fears related to comfort. There’s a reason we don’t hear about massive groups of people organizing at the borders to tear families apart — that’s not the goal. The goal is for each individual to abate the fear that they will lose something; the consequences are irrelevant when compared to their individual comfort. But when enough of these individuals voice their fears, and when those elected to office share in them, the aforementioned policies are put into place. Family values, it appears, only count when it’s the individual’s family.

Think about it — if push came to shove, how many people do you know who would actually risk their lives to protect those who need protection? Given the widespread use of public shaming, call-out culture, threats of violence, and societal repercussions, it’s hard enough for people to even attempt to have nuanced conversations in an age of social media, never mind take that risk (for more on nuance, check out this great article from Meghan Daum). For example, any time I post on social media about racial justice (such as Colin Kaepernick) or immigrants (sanctuary cities) or believing women (Kavanaugh), I am met with a barrage of astonishingly targeted, hate-filled attacks that accuse me of being anything from a baby killer to a rapist enabler to an enemy of our country who belongs in jail.

So call me a pessimist, but I don’t think that most people would risk their lives for a stranger, at least not one they think is the cause of their loss of comfort and status. The more society chooses to “otherize”, the less people ordinary folks are willing to protect. The groups who are most likely to do so, historically speaking, are those who have been previously marginalized. We saw this during the Holocaust, and we’re seeing it now with the unprecedented amount of minorities running for and winning office. Granted this isn’t anywhere near the same as saving someone’s life by hiding them in a basement, but it’s precisely because they know what’s at stake that they fight so hard to prevent this cycle from continuing.

But, not all hope is lost, even if this is perhaps the most stark and depressing book I have ever read. And that hope comes from the minorities and communities who know what it means to be marginalized, cast out, demonized and excluded from society and who are leading the charge against the direction we are headed in. It comes from the folks who constantly remind us that we do not live in a post-racial society, and that our social and political systems are designed to elevate some while oppressing others. It comes from those who constantly check themselves, recognizing that they were raised in a society that encourages certain behaviors and attitudes and using that understanding to do better.

In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, we need to be vigilant. We’re seeing firsthand how individual fears can spread and infect anyone, so let’s protect ourselves and others by individually choosing awareness and compassion. Together, these voices can rise up and change the narrative, thus creating smarter policies.

Call it herd immunity to fear-driven hate.