Silence about the Holocaust after 1945

Image: Holocaust memorial at Camp Westerbork, The Netherlands

Each of the great evils of the twentieth century — the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag — was shrouded in silence and concealment for decades after information became available to the world. In the case of the Gulag, the Soviet government exercised great effort to keep the facts of the prison camp system quiet, and the Communist parties of Western Europe minimized or obfuscated the facts that were publicly available. (Anne Applebaum documents much of this shameful record of secrecy and obfuscation in Gulag: A History.) A similar story of secrecy and lies can be told about the Holodomor.

Most inexcusable is the silence that greeted the facts of the Final Solution after the end of hostilities in 1945. The evidence of mass killing was everywhere — extermination camps, burial pits in Poland and Ukraine, first-person observations, the writings of contemporary observers like Vasily Grossman, and the Nuremberg trials. And yet there was little public recognition or discussion of the magnitude of the evil committed by the Nazi extermination plan, and their national collaborators, until the 1960s and 1970s.

Stimulated by discussions beginning in 1988 in Michigan at the first Holocaust Memorial Center in the United States, a group of scholars undertook to write a set of country studies on the reception of the Holocaust across Europe, North America, and Japan. The results are presented in a massive 1996 volume edited by David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, which is highly relevant for our project of “confronting evil in history”. Most of the countries surveyed in this volume did not confront history honestly; rather, they constructed more comfortable narratives that minimized the involvement of their own citizens in the Holocaust, and sometimes minimized and “normalized” the mass killings of Jews themselves. In his introduction David Wyman writes that during the 1950s “the most difficult and sensitive questions about the Holocaust had barely been raised. These issues included … questions about the guilt of the German people, complicity and collaboration in the countries under German occupation, the failure of non-Jews to attempt to save their Jewish neighbors, and the very limited rescue efforts on the part of the outside world. Nor were these issues confronted during the 1950s; instead, in that decade the Holocaust all but disappeared from public consciousness in most of the world” (xix).

Here is the table of contents and list of countries studied:

The book demonstrates an important feature of Holocaust history — the fact that much of the killing, and many of the documents, took place in Eastern Europe, in countries that came under Soviet control during and after the war. The Soviet government was slow to make available to the public records and documents that could provide a reasonably full understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Wyman writes, “Until the later 1980s these [Soviet bloc] countries all followed the Soviet Union’s approach to the Holocaust: they universalized it and forced it into a Communist ideological mold. The destruction of the Jews was seen as merely a small part of racist fascism’s murder of millions of Eastern European civilians” (xxi).

A number of the essays make the point that media events played an important role in Western European and North American countries in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to a broad audience. These include the US television series Holocaust (1978), Marcel Ophuls’ two-part French documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and Claude Lanzmann’s French documentary film Shoah (1985).

Here I will provide highlights from three of the country studies, to give a sense of the depth and detail of the essays. There is still much to be learned about the Holocaust and the way that various publics and governments have been willing to face the truth about their pasts honestly.

France, David Weinberg

David Weinberg’s article on documents the French government’s desire to “sanitize” the history of the Vichy years and the circumstances of the deportation of sixty to seventy thousand Jews from France to Nazi extermination camps. The issue of return of spoliated property — homes, businesses, other forms of pre-war wealth — was highly contentious in France in the postwar years. Further, thousands of Jewish children had been separated from their parents, and the task of reuniting families was both logistically and socially difficult. But most significant was the political interest that postwar governments had in concealing or distorting the collaboration that had occurred during the German occupation and the Vichy regime. “For much of the early postwar period the tragic events surrounding French involvement in the Final Solution were masked by governmental concerns with reconstruction and reconciliation…. The result was the gradual emergence of a national myth that viewed the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen during World War II as resisters to Nazism and portrayed the Vichy regime as an aberration whose traitorous deeds resulted from the venality and fanaticism of a crazed few” (18). One result was a resurgence of the far right in France: “Government amnesties brought many collaborators back to France after years in exile, and in the early fifties there was a noticeable increase in neo-fascist and neo-Nazi activity on the part of the extreme Right” (19). Weinberg also documents a resurgence of anti-Semitism in French society and politics in the 1950s. He describes the highly convoluted development of French political culture during the 1960s and 1970s, in which anti-colonialism converged to some degree with anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel, sentiment among activist youth. An important event in shifting French public awareness of the Holocaust and the Vichy years was the capture and trial in 1983 of Klaus Barbie, the chief of the Gestapo in Lyons and the prime mover in the deportation of French Jews. Barbie was also a notorious murderer of captured members of the Resistance (including Marc Bloch). Preparations for trial created a great deal of debate in France, and Barbie was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, dying in prison in 1991. (Here is a detailed treatment of the Barbie trial; link.) Weinberg closes on a pessimistic note: French leaders as recently as Mitterrand preferred to remain silent about the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy years (35), and there has not yet been a clear and honest reckoning of the war years.

Poland, Michael Steinlauf

Poland’s postwar history was determined by the imposition of a Soviet-style Communist regime. Returning Jews were unwelcome in Poland, in large part because of conflict over spoliated properties. Numerous pogroms took place in the first two years following the end of the war, including the shocking pogrom at Kielce that resulted in the murder of at least 42 people (112). (Steinlauf gives some credence to the possibility that the NKVD may have deliberately provoked the violence at Kielce.) Steinlauf describes 1956 as an important turning point in Polish political history, the “Polish road to socialism”, resulting in an anti-Stalinist regime that was more pragmatic than its predecessors. But this change of regime also permitted a resurgence of anti-Semitic attitudes in society and within political elites. Largescale emigration from Poland to Israel and other countries took place, reflecting the conviction by the Jewish population that Poland would never be a welcoming home for them. The Communist government — before and after the change of orientation in 1956 — continued to ignore the Nazi extermination of Jews in favor of “Poles and citizens of other nationalities”. “Under Communism, Auschwitz became a monument to internationalism that commemorated the ‘resistance and martyrdom’ of ‘Poles and citizens of other nationalities,’ In consultation with the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors and relatives of victims dominated by veterans of the largely Communist Auschwitz underground, barracks in the original work cam were turned over to twenty countries for use as ‘national pavilions.’ One of these structures became a ‘Jewish pavilion'” (117). Every part of this story represents denial: denial of the Jewish identities of the victims, erasure of the Nazi extermination goals of the camp, and inflation of the number of victims in order to suggest that comparable numbers of “Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews” were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Auschwitz could thereby emerge as the central symbol of Polish martyrdom, but within an inclusive internationalist framework” (117). Even the monument at Treblinka, where only Jews were killed and which is specific about the Jewish identities of the victims there, was publicly described in Poland as “800,000 citizens of European nations” (119).

This pattern of Soviet obfuscation resulted in a national narrative “whose effect was to marginalize, or ‘ghettoize,’ its subject” (120). Poland’s political history between 1956 and 1989 was complex and contentious, and anti-Semitism played a recurring role. 1968 manifested a student movement in Poland, state repression, and a serious official intensification of anti-Semitic actions and policies, in the form of an anti-Zionist campaign. (This is the period when Bauman and Kolakowski were force to leave Poland; linklink.) The period of the Solidarity movement, according to Steinlauf, produced greater honesty and openness about the tragedy of the extermination of the majority of Poland’s Jewish population. Steinlauf quotes an especially interesting literary exchange between Czesław Miłosz and the literary critic Jan Błoński, concerning Miłosz’s poem about the Warsaw ghetto “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”; (link): “Błoński explained that Poles had blocked the memory of this part of their history because ‘when we consider the past, we want to derive moral advantage from it … we want to be completely clean. We want to be also — and only — victims.’ … Błoński suggested that the only remedy was to see the past fully, without defensiveness, and then to ‘acknowledge our own guilt, and ask for forgiveness'” (139).

Steinlauf depicts the period in Poland from 1989 to the mid-1990s as one in which the situation has improved. There is a greater willingness to speak openly about anti-Semitism in Poland — past and present. Historical memorials have been corrected to more accurately reflect the overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Sobibor and Treblinka (144). And Steinlauf records the decision by the Polish government in 1990 to correct the inscriptions at Auschwitz, replacing reference to “four million people” murdered at Auschwitz with this passage:Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945. (145)

Steinlauf concludes his article with these hopeful words (in 1996): “Half a century after witnessing the Holocaust, Poles are freely confronting the memory of the experience for the first time. It is far too soon, however, to speculate about the meaning of this confrontation. It will gradually assume a coherent form only in the decades to come” (145). The final qualification is prophetic, since in the past decade Poland has seen nationalist politicians and legislators seeking to — once again — silence honest acknowledgement of Polish responsibility during the time of the Holocaust.

Lithuania, Dov Levin

Dov Levin notes that the culpability of Lithuanians in the Final Solution is deep. Even before the German invasion began, murderous pogroms occurred in many communities in Lithuania. “Unlike the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the century, which had been organized mainly by the anti-Semitic and archconservative political vigilantes known as the Black Hundreds, in Lithuania, especially in the smaller towns, Jews were actually murdered by former neighbors, classmates, and customers” (333). Only days before the German invasion a massacre in Kaunas (Slobodka) of 1200 men, women, and children was undertaken by “armed Lithuanians who called themselves partisans”. 2000 more Jews were murdered in the same place in the next few days (333). After the arrival of German forces and Einsatzgruppe A, “Lithuanians were soon accepted … as auxiliaries attached to German units” (333). 90% of Lithuania’s Jews perished by the end of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the majority before December 1941.

Following the retreat of the German forces from Lithuania following the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet Union re-established control over Lithuania. It enforced its party line concerning the Holocaust, especially concerning the deaths of Jews, emphasizing “innocent Soviet citizens” rather than Jews as the primary victims. A quantity of documentary evidence was collected by the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, but the museum was only permitted to operate for four years. Upon closure its valuable materials and documents were stored in a variety of places, including “book depositories of the Lithuanian SSR, where it was inaccessible to scholars and other interested persons” (338). Soviet authorities soon became unwilling to pursue complaints about stolen property, collaborators, and other crimes that had occurred during the German occupation (337). “Although many war criminals were eventually arrested and tried, the authorities generally avoided dwelling on the widespread nature of Lithuanian wartime collaboration with the enemy” (339). Levin observes that conditions for the surviving or returning Jewish community improved in the post-Stalin period, and there was an increase in publication of books and articles about the experience of the Nazi period in the 1960s and 1970s (340). However, diaspora Lithuanian communities began a campaign of obfuscation concerning Lithuanian responsibility for the killings of Jews (342). Within Lithuania the situation was different, according to Levin; “by the end of 1987 and early 1988, articles began to appear in the Lithuanian press … severely criticizing past sins of both omission and commission in reference to the memory of the Holocaust” (343). After the collapse of Communist rule in Lithuania the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic issued a statement in May 1990 signed by President Landsbergis, according to which the Supreme Council “unreservedly condemn[ed] the genocide committed against the Jewish people during the years of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania and state[d] with sorrow that among the henchmen who served the occupying power there were also citizens of Lithuania” (345). Levin notes the subsequent emergence of extreme anti-Semitic nationalists in Lithuania. He also highlights several important themes or myths that have taken hold in Lithuania that have the effect of misleading the current generation about the grim realities of the past: idealization of the past concerning Jewish-Lithuanian relations; symmetry between Jewish and Lithuanian behavior during World War II; tendentious exaggeration or distortion of proportions; reciprocity in punishment of war criminals; and euphoria about the present and utopian optimism for the future (347). 

Assessment

These are just three of the fascinating country cases included in The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Every essay contains material that will be surprising to the non-specialist. There are common themes, however. Both in the Soviet bloc and in Western Europe there is a residual level of anti-Semitism that expresses itself periodically. In all parts of Europe there have been political and nationalistic reasons for concealing or obfuscating the past — for the sake of national unity, for the sake of economic progress, for a desire to move on. And yet each case makes it clear that no country can thrive if it is unwilling to honestly examine its past, to reckon with the inexcusable things that its citizens have done in prior decades, and to commit to a process of recognition, acknowledgement, and sorrow for the murders and atrocities committed in its name. Finally, it is important to recall that each of these narratives ends in the early 1990s. Much has happened in European politics that has given new force to right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism that makes the overall cautious optimism of the volume quite uncertain. It would be highly interesting to see followup articles on these countries to see how things have developed in the twenty-six years since the volume was first published.

(A few examples of poetry relevant to the question of remembrance of the Holocaust are collected in a separate post; link. Powerful and evocative poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Wim Ramaker (Netherlands), Czesław Miłosz (Poland), and Vasily Grossman (Ukraine) are provided there.) 

Online mobilization strategies by right-wing extremists

graphic: White supremacist podcast network (SPLC link)


The surge of right-wing extremism has been evident in the United States for the past five years, including the spread of white supremacist language and activism, armed demonstrations by right-wing militia organizations, violent threats against public officials in health and education agencies, and — of course — the violent insurrection that took place in the US Capitol Building January 6, 2021. But how does this work? What are the processes through which movements and groups that had been on the extremist fringe in the US are now coming into mass politics and are being embraced by Republican leaders from local to national? Is this just organic growth, or is it more deliberate and intentional than that?

The Souther Poverty Law Center has provided information — increasingly alarming information — about the growth of racist and extremist groups around the country for decades, and its research provides very important for all citizens who care about democracy to study. SPLC researchers have also highlighted the fact that hate-based groups and activists make extensive use of the internet to spread their ideas and values. Crucially, Megan Squire and Hannah Gais have documented a very rapid rise in mobilization and proselytization strategies through podcasts — low-cost, readily disseminated productions that spew White Supremacist hate along with “shock radio” irony (link). They write that “the role of podcasts in the world of far-right extremism has been largely understudied.” Producers of these hate-based podcasts can rely on dozens of podcast outlets provided by Apple, Google, and dozens of other internet mainstays, and the hate-based podcast can generate its audience at almost no cost. The article demonstrates graphically how these networks of extremist podcasts have grown in a very short time. They summarize the use of a wide network of hate-based podcasts for extremist purposes in these terms:

Podcasts have been exploited by far-right extremists in three distinct ways. They represent an important vehicle for radicalization to extremism and recruitment into extremist groups. Podcasts are also a bridge from online to on-the-ground organizing, specifically in the context of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Finally, extremists use podcasts to build contacts abroad and introduce their movements to leaders in other countries. (link)

Squire and Gais use a number of valuable analytical tools to describe the audiences of these podcasts and the important role that the podcast network has played in orchestrating events like Unite the Right. Through this research the SPLC report helps to capture the current structure of the White Supremacist movement today:

Both communities constituted two distinct poles within the white power movement, with Iron March representing its violent, terroristic ambitions and 504um typifying its efforts to build a white ethnostate through the existing political system. For a time, some users retained membership at both sites, while members of each site’s core leadership engaged in dialogue on their respective podcasts and occasionally republished one another’s work. However, after members of 8chan, a far-right image board popular with white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists, outed TRS leader Peinovich as married to a Jewish woman, the two communities fractured. “Slavros” and those groups, such as the Atomwaffen Division, that carried on the forum’s legacy of violence long after it disappeared from the web in fall 2017, expressed contempt for TRS and other factions of the alt-right. For “Slavros,” the alt-right represented “appeasement” to the current political order, as he argued in the September 2017 text “Zero Tolerance.”

Squire and Gais find a weird kind of narrative complexity in the stories of contemporary fascist beliefs that are represented in the various podcasts. This is important because it goes some way to explaining the virulence and appeal of these movements to some profiles of vulnerable individuals.

Another important angle that SPLC researchers have uncovered is the role played in hate organizations by cryptocurrencies (link). Michael Edison Hayden and Megan Squire show that cryptocurrency speculation has provided a very substantial source of funds in support of right-wing extremist mobilization. Here is a summary of their findings:

Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it. The estimated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of value extreme far-right figures generated represents a sum that would almost certainly be unavailable to them without cryptocurrency, and it gave them a chance to live comfortable lives while promoting hate and authoritarianism.

This research depends on the use of blockchain analysis software. Here is a definition of this kind of tool: “Blockchain analysis is the process of inspecting, identifying, clustering, modeling and visually representing data on a cryptographic distributed-ledger known as a blockchain. The goal of blockchain analysis is discovering useful information about the different actors transacting in cryptocurrency. Analysis of public blockchains such as the bitcoin and ethereum is often conducted by private companies. Bitcoin has long been associated with the trade of illegal goods on the dark web; this has been the case since bitcoin became the standard currency on the now closed ” (link). Tools like these provide a window into the magnitude and disbursements made by some of these specific individuals. Speculation in Bitcoin and other currencies created a great deal of wealth for many of the leaders of far-right extremist organizations. And these cryptocurrency platforms provide relatively anonymous vehicles for transfer of funds from donors to organizations and their leaders. 

Interesting and important as these analyses are, the job is still unfinished. We need a similarly detailed and technically sophisticated analysis of the use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms by very intelligent right-wing extremists in pursuit of their goals of fundraising, mobilization, proselytization, and activism. What volume of videos on Youtube, and how many viewers, are connected to right-wing extremism and racist ideologies? How are Facebook groups used to transmit and amplify hate-based messages to followers? How is Twitter subverted with lies about immigration, covid, or government action? And what about online video game communities — what role do these communities play in the amplification of hate-based values and beliefs? (Here is a New York Times piece about young teenagers being targeted in multi-player online games by neo-Nazi and white supremacist activists; link.)

When we consider the disproportionate role that false information, conspiracy theories, and outright lies about the coronavirus have played in the rapid incorporation of Covid into right-wing extremist grievances, the online networks described here are of great importance. These are some of the highways through which dangerous lies and mobilizing political narratives are conveyed by right-wing extremists. Hate-based extremists exist in real, concrete organizations and geographical locations; but they also exist in online communities. And the sophisticated data analysis provided by SPLC researchers is one of the tools we need if we are to fight effectively against the kinds of violent mobilization that occurred on January 6, 2021.

graphic: SPLC hate group map 2020 (link)

Jedwabne as memory and history

In July 1941 a terrible massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland. The town consisted of some 3,000 residents, about half of whom were Jewish. On July 10, 1941, weeks after the German army took control of the town from the Soviet Red Army (according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), a largescale action of mob violence against the Jews of Jedwabne took place, leading in the end to the murder of almost all of the Jewish population of the town. (Jan Gross estimates the death count to be about 1,600 men, women, and children.) Most horrifically, the largest number of these victims were herded into a barn which was set afire; everyone inside the barn was burned to death. Similar massacres occurred in nearby villages in the same week, in Wąsosz (July 5; link) and Radziłów (July 7; link).

Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2000) attempted to gather together the historical evidence available about the massacre and to provide a fact-based narrative of what happened on that awful day. His account, and the issues about Polish Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and murder that it raises, have created a great deal of debate in Poland.

Several major questions have dominated the historical debate over what happened at Jedwabne:

  • Was the massacre ordered or instigated by the Germans?
  • Was ambient hatred of Jews among inter-war Poles responsible for this willingness to murder fellow human beings?
  • Was resentment against Jews for “collaboration with the Soviets” during the short period of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland a primary factor in hostility to the Jews of Jedwabne by their neighbors?
  • Was Jedwabne typical of a common experience in rural Poland in 1941?

Journalist Anna Bikont undertook in 2000 to provide a fresh review of the events of Jedwabne, and the results are provided in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (2004). Her book is a remarkable work of investigative journalism, involving careful review of existing archives and interviews with a surprising number of persons who were present in Jedwabne on that terrible day. In almost every large detail Bikont confirms Gross’s key factual claims.

Bikont provides substantial documentation of the high level of anti-Semitism in eastern Poland (and the Łomża region in particular), promulgated by the extremist National Party and the Catholic Church. (The publication Catholic Cause was a frequent source of anti-Semitic exhortations.) These conclusions are based on her interviews, publications of the Church and the party, and investigative reports by the Interior Ministry. “In an Interior Ministry report of February 3, 1939, we read, ‘Anti-Semitism is spreading uncontrollably.’ In a climate where windows being smashed in Jewish homes, stalls being overturned, and Jews being beaten were daily occurrences, one case from Jedwabne that came to trial in 1939 concerned an accusation made against a Jewish woman” (51).

Bikont documents rampant anti-Semitism in the historical record. Here is a statement from her interview with Jan Skrodzki, who witnessed the brutality and murder in Jedwabne as a six-year-old child:

I often hear there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland now. I always say, ‘There are a lot of anti-Semites in my family, and of the people I know, every other one, or maybe every third, is anti-Semitic, and I could easily have been, too.’ And where did we get our anti-Semitism? The priest preached it from the pulpit, that fat Father Dołęgowski. And Poles in Radziłów lapped it up because they were uneducated or completely illiterate. Envious of Jews because they were better off. While Jews were working harder, organizing their work better, supporting each other. (235)

Bikont shares a few lines from her interview with Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew in the Bialystok Institute of National Remembrance:

AB: You say, “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—a group of at least forty men … They actively participated in committing the crime, armed with sticks, crow bars, and other tools.” Let us try to trace how you came to the description you gave of the atrocity in your final findings. You read Gross’s book … (589)

Here is Prosecutor Ignatiew’s summary conclusion:

I can state that the perpetrators of the atrocity were Polish residents of Jedwabne and its surroundings, at least forty men. There is no proof that the townspeople in general were the perpetrators. To claim that there was a company of Germans in Jedwabne is as implausible as maintaining the whole town went crazy. Most people behaved passively. I can’t judge where that passivity came from. Maybe some people felt compassion for the victims but were terrified by the brutality of the killers. Others, though they may have had anti-Semitic views, were not people quick to take an active part in actions of this kind. (600)

Prosecutor Ignatiew disagrees with Gross’s account on two details. First, he believes the total number of murdered individuals was significantly fewer than the 1,600 reported in Neighbors. And second, based on his investigation he believes that the killings were instigated and encouraged by the Germans, though not commanded or organized by them. The evidence available to him supports the conclusion that the number of uniformed Germans was very small on the day of the killings. 

Antony Polonsky notes that Gross’s book created great discord about Poland’s history on its publication. Polonsky reviewed the debate about Jedwabne as it has unfolded in Poland in his important 2004 article, “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” (link). Polonsky is a well-respected scholar of Jewish history, and especially of the history of the Jews in Poland, and his treatment of the facts and the historiography of Jedwabne is judicious and credible. The question of Polish culpability and collaboration is important; but in his view, the genocide was chiefly the work of Germany. “The primary responsibility for these crimes clearly lies with the Nazis” (128). But this conclusion is about the genocide of Poland’s Jews throughout the period — not specifically at Jedwabne.

Polonsky addresses the question of whether the murderous violence in Jedwabne occurred because Christian Poles believed that Jewish Poles had been disloyal under Soviet occupation. Polonsky takes a nuanced position on this question. He believes that this suspicion and resentment played a role in elevating anti-Semitism in 1940, and he notes that it was natural for the Jewish community to suspect that Soviet rule would be less harmful to them than Nazi rule. But he does not appear to believe that this was a primary cause of the murderous actions of ordinary Polish people in July 1940.

In addition, Jewish collaboration with the new Soviet authorities aroused widespread Polish resentment. It is undeniable that a fair number of Jews (like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, a considerable number of Ukrainians, and even some Poles) welcomed the establishment of Soviet rule. In the Jewish case, this welcome was natural: it is explained by a desire to see an end to the insecurity caused by the collapse of Polish rule in these areas and the belief that the Soviets were less hostile than the Nazis and the resentment of Polish anti-Jewish policies in the interwar period. There was, in addition, some support for the communist system, although this was very much a minority position within the Jewish community. While the Soviets did offer new opportunities to individual Jews, they acted to suppress organized Jewish life, both religious and political, dissolving kehillot, banning virtually all Jewish parties and arresting their leaders. Jews made up nearly a third of the over half a million people deported by the Soviets from these areas (which inadvertently saved many of them from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis). Under these conditions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population here very quickly lost whatever illusions they might have had about the Soviet system. (140)

Further, Polonsky and Michlic in their introduction to The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2009) suggest that the Łomża region was exceptional for the degree of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism it exhibited in the years before Germany’s invasion:

Such evidence as we have, both Polish and Jewish, suggests that the Łomża region in northeastern Poland where Jedwabne is located, an area that had long been a stronghold of the extreme right, was the only area in which collective massacres of Jews by civilian Poles took place in the summer of 1941—when the region, previously occupied by the Soviet Union, was reoccupied by Nazi Germany. (The Neighbors Respond, 45)

Polonsky and Michlic suggest that pogroms like these in the northeast were uncommon elsewhere in Poland, and that similar pogroms occurred in western Ukraine on a much broader scale. They quote research by Marco Carynnyk documenting largescale pogroms in 1941 in more than thirty places in western Ukraine, resulting in deaths estimated between 12,000 and 35,000. By that account, then, Łomża region atrocities (including Jedwabne, Wąsosz, and Radziłów) were not typical of the experience of Polish-Jewish communities in most of Poland, and were more similar to the localities of western Ukraine.

Another important resource on the active involvement of non-Jewish Poles in the murder of Poland’s Jews is Jan Grabowski’s “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” (link). Grabowski documents the substantial role that the “Blue Police” (Polish nationals in a reconstituted police force under Nazi command) played in implementation of Nazi Jewish regulations, including confinement in ghettos in Poland’s major cities. This role included carrying out mass executions of Jews. Here is an example of Blue Police involvement in an aktion in Węgrówa small Polish city:

On the day of the Aktion in Węgrów, the German-Ukrainian Liquidierungskommando, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters, and so-called “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokołów railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka. The Liquidierungskommando left Węgrów the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution. (11)

Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were sued under Poland’s recent libel and defamation laws, created by the Law and Justice Party government, for publication of their book Night without End on the basis of statements about Polish individuals who were responsible for crimes against Jews. Engelking and Grabowski were first found responsible for libel against a descendent of Edward Malinowski and ordered to publicly apologize. This verdict was profoundly chilling to historians conducting historical research on the Holocaust in Poland. An appellate court took note of the negative effect the lower court ruling had on academic freedom and reversed that finding in August 2021 (link).

Polonsky makes a key point in both “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” and the introduction to The Neighbors Respond, that parallels Tony Judt’s arguments in “The Past is Another Country” (link) — that confronting the ugly truths about the past is essential to moving forward to a democratic and peaceful future. Polish society has had difficulty in confronting the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the political realities of Communist rule in Poland, and the current government is emphatic in its efforts to “sanitize” the telling of this history. In Judt’s phrase, the current government prefers myth to truth. Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, Michlic, Polonsky, and a whole cohort of historians of Poland, both inside Poland and abroad, are working hard to discover the truth.

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

BABI YAR

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
                    Dreyfus.
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
Hounded,
            spat on,
                    slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
                                    you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
transparent
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
                                tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
                                thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

Theories of authoritarian personality

A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump’s variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump’s base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump’s base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.

There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of “liberals” and “conservatives”. Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:

We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)

And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear…. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated…. (814)

The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring “social dominance orientation” (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.

Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual’s propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer’s construction of the scale in “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).

The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression, and support traditional values endorsed by authorities. (1)

Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of “the authoritarian personality” initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:

Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)

The “social dominance orientation” (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled “Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes” (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:

The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth…. For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)

Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.

What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): “people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure.” Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. “In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice” (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).

In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.

Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)

It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of “why now?”, “why in this generation?” are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America — terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization — may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level — in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups — may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.

The democratic dilemma of trust

In 2007 Chuck Tilly published an intriguing historical and theoretical study of the politics of equality and voice, Democracy. The book is a study of the historical movements towards greater democracy — and likewise, the forces that lead to de-democratization. The threat currently posed to western democracies by the rise of radical populism makes it worthwhile thinking once more about some of these theories.

Here is the definition that Tilly offers for democracy throughout the book: “In this simplified perspective, a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation” (13-14).

And here is how he defines these four crucial features of democratic institutions:

The terms broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding identify four partly independent dimensions of variation among regimes. Here are rough descriptions of the four dimensions:

  1. Breadth: From only a small segment of the population enjoying extensive rights, the rest being largely excluded from public politics, to very wide political inclusion of people under the state’s jurisdiction (at one extreme, every household has its own distinctive relation to the state, but only a few households have full rights of citizenship; at the other, all adult citizens belong to the same homogeneous category of citizenship)
  2. Equality: From great inequality among and within categories of citizens to extensive equality in both regards (at one extreme, ethnic categories fall into a well-defined rank order with very unequal rights and obligations; at the other, ethnicity has no significant connection with political rights or obligations and largely equal rights prevail between native-born and naturalized citizens)
  3. Protection: From little to much protection against the state’s arbitrary action (at one extreme, state agents constantly use their power to punish personal enemies and reward their friends; at the other, all citizens enjoy publicly visible due process)
  4. Mutually binding consultation: From non-binding and/or extremely asymmetrical to mutually binding (at one extreme, seekers of state benefits must bribe, cajole, threaten, or use third-party influence to get anything at all; at the other, state agents have clear, enforceable obligations to deliver benefits by category of recipient) (14-15)

It is interesting to observe that this definition of democracy gives all of its attention to the behavior of government and the relationship of government to its citizenry. But twentieth-century history, and the early decades of the twenty-first century, make it clear that anti-democracy dwells in citizens as well as authoritarian wielders of state power. The use of coercion and violence is not the monopoly of the state. In Fascists Michael Mann emphasizes the role of fascist paramilitary organizations in the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and other organizations, and their brutal use of violence against their “enemies”. And his treatment of ethnic cleansing in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing likewise makes it clear that the impulses of right-wing organizations in civil society can lead to murderous violence in contemporary settings as well. This appears to be relevant in India today, with the blending of BJP party organizations and extremist nationalist organizations in civil society in the fomenting of anti-Muslim violence. So anti-democratic impulses are by no means the terrain of authoritarian states only. Contemporary white supremacist organizations in the United States seem to represent exactly this kind of danger.

The definition and explications that Tilly offers here can be understood in a normative way. Higher scores in these four dimensions mean a better society — a more democratic society. But they can also be understood as contributing to a political psychology of democracy: “This is what it will take for a democracy to be stable and enduring.” Citizens need to have rights of participation; these rights need to be genuinely equal; citizens need to be protected from arbitrary state action; and important decisions of public policy need to be decided through institutions and rules that bind state actors. And they need to be confident in each of these conditions in their existing political institutions.

One of the factors that Tilly emphasizes in his account of political democracy is the role of trust — trust between rulers and citizens, and of course, between citizens and rulers. There is an intimate connection between trust and that crucial idea of democratic theory, “consent of the governed”. Paying taxes, obeying local laws, accepting conscription — these are all democratic duties; but they are also largely voluntary, in the sense that enforcement is sporadic and only partially effective. Participants need to trust that these duties apply to all citizens, and that everyone is, roughly speaking, accepting his or her share of the burdens. If the governed have lost trust in the political institutions that govern them, then their continuing consent is in question.

Here and elsewhere (Trust and Rule) Tilly puts a lot of his chips on his idea of “trust networks” as a primary vehicle of social trust. But here Tilly seems to miss the boat a bit. He does not address the broad question of institutional trust; rather, his trust concepts all fall at the more local and individual-to-individual end of the spectrum. He characterizes trust as a relationship (81), which is fair enough; but the terms of the relationship are other individuals, not institutions or practices.

Trust networks, to put it more formally, contain ramified interpersonal connections, consisting mainly of strong ties, within which people set valued, consequential, long-term resources and enterprises at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, or failures of others. (81)

Trust networks gain political importance when they intersect with patron-client relationships with governing elites; groups are able to secure benefits when their network is able to negotiate a favorable settlement of a policy issue, and then deliver the behavior (voting, demonstrations, public support) of the individuals within the trust network in question. This might be an ethnic or racial group, a regional association (farmers, small business owners), or a political advocacy movement (environmentalists, anti-tax activists). So trust is involved in making government work in these circumstances; but it is not trust between citizen and government, but rather among citizens within their own trust networks, and between the powerful and the spokespersons of these networks (link).

In fact, current mistrust in government seems to rest heavily on trust networks within the right: trust in Fox News, trust in Breitbart, trust in the organizations and leaders of the right, trust in the extended network represented by the Tea Party, trust in fellow members of various right-wing organizations who may be neighbors or Twitter sources.

But the challenge to our current democratic institutions seems to have to do with a loss of institutional trust — trust, confidence, and reliance in our basic institutions.

So the question here is this: why have large segments of the populations of western democracies lost a substantial amount of trust in the institutions of governance in their democracies? Why does the idea of a social contract in which everyone benefits from cooperation and public policy no longer have the grip that it needs to have if democracy is to thrive?

One answer seems evident, but perhaps too superficial: there has been a concerted campaign for at least fifty years of cultivating mistrust of government in the United States and other countries that has led to cynicism in many, rejection of government policy and the legitimacy of taxation in others, and loony resistance in others. (Think of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, for example, and the extremist anti-government ideologies expressed by its activists.) This is propaganda, a deliberate effort to shape political attitudes and beliefs through the techniques of Madison Avenue. Grover Norquist’s explicit political goal was expressed in vivid terms: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This suggests that mistrust of government is due, in part anyway, to the results of a highly effective marketing campaign by conservatives aimed at producing exactly that mistrust in a significant portion of the population. The slogans and political language of extremist populism are chosen with exactly this effect in mind — to lead followers to despise and mistrust the “elites” who govern them in Washington (or Lansing, Albany, and Sacramento). It is genuinely shocking to see conservative activists challenging the legitimacy of state action in support of maintaining public health in the Covid-19 pandemic; if this is not a legitimate role for government, one wonders, what ever would be?

What gave conservatives and now right-wing populists and white nationalists the ability to mobilize significant numbers of citizens in support of their anti-government rhetoric? In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America McAdam and Kloos offer the basis for explaining the decline of trust in US politics to two fundamental issues — white resentment over the new politics of race from roughly 1960 forward (positioning some voters to believe they are no longer getting their fair share), and the rising levels of inequality of wealth, income, and quality of life in the United States (leading some voters to believe they have been left out of the prosperity of the late twentieth century). These general factors made political mobilization around a conservative, anti-government, and racialized politics feasible; and conservative GOP leaders eagerly stepped forward to make use of this political wedge. (McAdam and Kloos provide an astounding collection of quotes by Republican candidates for president against Barack Obama in vile, racist terms.) (Here are earlier discussions of McAdam and Kloos; linklinklink.)

So what features of political and social life are likely to enhance trust in basic social institutions? Tilly refers first to Robert Putnam’s discussions of civic engagement and social capital, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But he is not satisfied with Putnam’s basic hypothesis — that greater civic engagement leads to greater trust in political institutions, and eventually to a broader level of consent among citizens. Instead, he turns to theorizing about the challenges of democratic governance by Mark Warren, which he summarizes as “the democratic dilemma of trust” (93), and the potential that deliberative democracy has for rekindling democratic trust.

The deliberative solution, which Warren himself prefers, bridges the gap by making democratic deliberation and trust mutually complementary: the very process of deliberation generates trust, but the existence of trust facilitates deliberation. (93)

But significantly, Tilly does not take this line of thought very far; and he doesn’t explicitly recognize that the trust to which Warren refers is categorically different from that involved in Tilly’s own concept of a trust network.

I am surprised to discover that I find Tilly’s treatment of democracy to be deficient precisely because it is too much in the realist tradition of political science (link). Tilly’s theories of politics and the state, and the relationship between state and citizen, are too much committed to the cost-benefit calculations of rulers and the governed. This places him in the middle of fairly standard “positive” theories of democracy that have dominated American political science for decades. Tilly pays no heed here — and I cannot think of broader treatments elsewhere in his writings — to the political importance of the “mystic chords of memory” and the “better angels of our nature“. Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, and they refer to the political emotions and commitments that secure us to a set of political institutions that we support, not because of the narrow shopping list of benefits and burdens that they offer, but because of their fundamental justice and their compatibility with our ideals of equality and personhood. But surely a democracy depends ultimately and its ability to cultivate that kind of trust and commitment among many of its citizens. Chuck, you’ve let us down!

#####
Here are Abraham Lincoln’s closing words in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), expressing to his commitment to preserve the Union:

While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Brass on anti-Muslim violence in India

The occurrence of anti-Muslim violence, arson, and murder in New Delhi last month is sometimes looked at a simply an unpredictable episode provoked by protest against the citizenship legislation enacted by the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. (See Jeffrey Gettleman and Maria Abi-Habib’s New York Times article for a thoughtful and detailed account of the riots in New Delhi; link.) However, Paul Brass demonstrated several decades ago in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, that riots and violent episodes like this have a much deeper explanation in Indian politics. His view is that the political ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is used by BJP and other extremist parties to advance its own political fortunes. This ideology (and the political program it is designed to support) is a prime cause of continuing violence by Hindu extremists against Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities in India.

Brass asks a handful of crucial and fundamental questions: Do riots serve a function in Indian politics? What are the political interests that are served by intensifying mistrust, fear, and hatred of Muslims by ordinary Hindu workers, farmers, and shopkeepers? How does a framework of divisive discourse contribute to inter-group hatred and conflict? “I intend to show also that a hegemonic discourse exists in Indian society, which I call the communal discourse, which provides a framework for explaining riotous violence.” (24). Throughout Brass keeps the actors in mind — including leaders, organizers, and participants: “It is one of the principal arguments of this book that we cannot understand what happens in riots until we examine in detail the multiplicity of roles and persons involved in them”. (29) Here are the central themes of the book:

The whole political order in post-Independence north India and many, if not most of its leading as well as local actors—more markedly so since the death of Nehru—have become implicated in the persistence of Hindu-Muslim riots. These riots have had concrete benefits for particular political organizations as well as larger political uses. (6)

The maintenance of communal tensions, accompanied from time to time by lethal rioting at specific sites, is essential for the maintenance of militant Hindu nationalism, but also has uses for other political parties, organizations, and even the state and central governments. (9)

Brass documents his interpretation through meticulous empirical research, including a review of the demographic and political history of regions of India, a careful timeline of anti-Muslim riots and pogroms since Independence, and extensive interviews with participants, officials, and onlookers in one particularly important city, Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh (northern India). Brass gives substantial attention to the discourse chosen by Hindu nationalist parties and leaders, and he argues that violent attacks are deliberately encouraged and planned.

Most commonly, the rhetoric is laced with words that encourage its members not to put up any longer with the attacks of the other but to retaliate against their aggression. There are also specific forms of action that are designed to provoke the other community into aggressive action, which is then met with a stronger retaliatory response. (24)

Brass asks the fundamental question:

What interests are served and what power relations are maintained as a consequence of the wide acceptance of the reality of popular communal antagonisms and the inevitability of communal violence? (11)

(We can ask the same question about the rise of nationalist and racist discourse in the United States in the past fifteen years: what interests are served by according legitimacy to the language of white supremacy and racism in our politics?)

Brass rejects the common view that riots in India are “spontaneous” or “responsive to provocation”; instead, he argues that communal Hindu-nationalist riots are systemic and strategic. Violence derives from a discourse of Hindu-Muslim hostility and the legitimization of violence. Given this view that riots and anti-Muslim violence are deliberate political acts in India, Brass offers an analysis of what goes into “making of a riot”. He argues that there are three analytically separable phases: preparation / rehearsal; activation / enactment; and explanation / interpretation (15). This view amounts to an interpretation of the politics of Hindu nationalism as an “institutionalized riot system” (15).

When one examines the actual dynamics of riots, one discovers that there are active, knowing subjects and organizations at work engaged in a continuous tending of the fires of communal divisions and animosities, who exercise by a combination of subtle means and confrontational tactics a form of control over the incidence and timing of riots.” (31)

This deliberate provocation of violence was evident in the riots in Gujarat in 2002, according to Dexter Filkins in a brilliant piece of journalism on these issues in the New Yorker (link):

The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the R.S.S. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.

Especially important in the question of civil strife and ethnic conflict in any country is the behavior and effectiveness of the police. Do the police work in an even-handed way to suppress violent acts and protect all parties neutrally? And does the justice system investigate and punish the perpetrators of violence? In India the track record is very poor, including in the riots in the early 1990s in Mumbai and in 2002 in Gujarat. Brass writes:

The government of India and the state governments do virtually nothing after a riot to prosecute and convict persons suspected of promoting or participating in riots. Occasionally, but less frequently in recent years, commissions of inquiry are appointed. If the final reports are not too damaging to the government of the day or to the political supporters of that government in the Hindu or Muslim communities, the report may be published More often than not, there is a significant delay before publication. Some reports are never made public. (65)

This pattern was repeated in Delhi during the most recent period of anti-Muslim pogrom. The police stand by while Hindutva thugs attack Muslims, burn homes and shops, and murder the innocent. Conversely, when the police function as representatives of the whole of civil society rather than supporters of a party, they are able to damp down inter-religious killing quickly (as Brass documents in his examination of the period of relative peace in Aligarh between 1978-80 to 1988-90).

Brass is especially rigorous in his development of the case for the deliberate and strategic nature of anti-Muslim bigotry within the politics of Hindu nationalism and its current government. But other experts agree. For example, Ashutosh Varshney described the dynamics of religious conflict in India in very similar terms to those offered by Brass (link):

Organized civic networks, when intercommunal, not only do a better job of withstanding the exogenous communal shocks—like partitions, civil wars, and desecration of holy places; they also constrain local politicians in their strategic behavior. Politicians who seek to polarize Hindu and Muslims for the sake of electoral advantage can tear at the fabric of everyday engagement through the organized might of criminals and gangs. All violent cities in the project showed evidence of a nexus of politicians and criminals. Organized gangs readily disturbed neighborhood peace, often causing migration from communally heterogeneous to communally homogenous neighborhoods, as people moved away in search of physical safety. Without the involvement of organized gangs, large-scale rioting and tens and hundreds of killings are most unlikely, and without the protection afforded by politicians, such criminals cannot escape the clutches of law. Brass has rightly called this arrangement an institutionalized riot system. (378)

Varshney treats these issues in greater detail in his 2002 book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India.

The greatest impetus to the political use of the politics of hate and the program of Hindu nationalism was the campaign to destroy the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, UP, in 1992. For an informative and factual account of the Babri Mosque episode and its role within the current phase of Hindu nationalism in India, see Abdul Majid, “The Babri Mosque and Hindu Extremists Movements”; link.

A course on democracy and intolerance

I am teaching a brand new honors course at my university called “Democracy and the politics of division and hate”. The course focuses on the question of the relationship between democracy and intolerance. As any reader of the world’s news outlets knows, intolerance and bigotry have become ever-more prominent themes in the politics of Western democracies – France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, and – yes, the United States. These movements put the values of a liberal democracy to the test.

Here is the course description:

Democracy has been understood as a setting where equal citizens collectively make decisions about law and public policy in an environment of equality, fairness, and mutual respect. Political theorists from Rousseau to JS Mill to Rawls have attempted to define the conditions that make a democratic civil society possible. Today the world’s democracies are challenged by powerful political movements based on intolerance and division. How should democratic theory respond to the challenge of hate-based political movements? The course reexamines classic ideas in democratic theory, current sociological research on hate-based populism, and current strategies open to citizens in the twenty-first century to reclaim the values of tolerance and respect in their democratic institutions. The course is intended to provide students with better intellectual resources for understanding the political developments currently transforming societies as diverse as the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, India, and Nigeria.

The organizing idea is that democratic theorists have generally conceived of a democracy as a polity in which a sense of civic unity is cultivated that ensures a common commitment to the formal and substantive values of a democratic society — the equal worth and rights of all citizens, the rule of law, adherence to the constitution, and respect for the institutions of collective decision-making. (Josh Cohen provided an excellent analysis of Rousseau’s core philosophical ideas about democracy in Rousseau: A Free Community of Equalslink.) John Rawls captures this idea in Political Liberalism, where he introduces the idea of “political liberalism”:

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines…. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime. Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)

This formulation is intended to capture the idea that a democracy always embraces groups of people who disagree about important things. These conflicting value frameworks are what he refers to as “comprehensive doctrines of the good”, and a liberal democracy is neutral among reasonable comprehensive doctrines.

So what is a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine”? Rawls’s conception amounts to precisely this: all such doctrines maintain a commitment to “the essentials of a democratic regime”. He refers to comprehensive doctrines that reject these commitments to political justice as irrational and “mad”:

Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society. (xvi)

But here is an important point: Rawls seems to have a robust confidence in the idea that a society that satisfies the conditions of justice and political liberalism will evolve towards a greater degree of civic unity. This seems to imply that he believes that individuals and groups who adhere to their “unreasonable, irrational, and mad” comprehensive doctrines will be led to change their beliefs over time and will gradually come to accept the democratic consensus.

The problem that we consider in the course is that democratic societies seem to have evolved in the opposite direction: doctrines that reject the legitimacy of the fundamentals of liberal democracy (respect for the equality of all citizens and respect for the rule of law) — these doctrines appear to have rapidly gained ground in many democracies in Europe and now the United States. Instead of converging towards a “democratic consensus” where everyone recognizes the legitimacy, equality, and rights of all other citizens, many democracies have developed powerful political movements that reject all these commitments. These are the political movements of division and hate — or the movements of right-wing populism. Democracy depends fundamentally on the principle of tolerance of points of view different from our own. Does that mean that democracy must be “tolerant of the intolerant”, with no effective means of protecting its values and institutions against groups that would subvert its most basic principles?

So how do we take on this set of issues, which involve both political philosophy and the sociology of political mobilization and political psychology?

The course begins by immersing the students in some of the values that define democracy.We begin with John Stuart Mill’s short but influential 1859book, On Liberty. Mill postulates the equal worth and liberties of all citizens, and argues that a good democracy involves rule by the majority while scrupulously protecting the equal rights and freedoms of all citizens. (Notice the close agreement between this theory and the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which we also read.) We then consider the theory of a liberal society put forward by John Rawls in Political Liberalism, where Rawls argues that a democracy depends fundamentally upon a culture of respect for the equal worth and equal rights and liberties of all citizens. This implies that perhaps democracy cannot survive in the absence of such a culture.

This is the positive theory of democracy, as several centuries of philosophers have developed it.

Next we turn to the challenges these theories face in the contemporary world: the rise of hate-based populism in Europe and the United States, and the rising prevalence of racism, bigotry, and violence in many countries. And this is not just a Western problem — think of India, the world’s largest democracy, and the governing party’s inculcation of hate and violence against Muslims. Anti-semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and white supremacy are on the rise. The Front Nationale in France, the Alternative for Germany, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are all examples of political parties that have developed mass followings with appeals based on racism and division, and similar parties exist in most other European countries. And white supremacist organizations in the United States make the same appeals in our country as well.

The hard question for us is this: can our liberal democracies find ways of coping with intolerance and hate? Can we reassert the values of civility and mutual respect in ways that build a greater consensus around the values of democracy? Does a democracy have the ability to defend itself against parties who reject the moral premises of democracy?

The assigned readings in the course include several excellent and thought-provoking books from philosophy, sociology, and political theory. We begin with Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser’s book Populism: A Very Short Introduction, which gives an excellent short overview of the phenomenon of rightwing populism in Europe and the United States, along with a good discussion of the challenge of defining the concept of populism.

We then turn to two weeks on McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, along with a survey report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on the spread of racist and hate-based organizations in the United States. McAdam and Kloos provide an analysis of the evolution of the mainstream “conservative” political party since the Nixon presidency, and document through survey data and other evidence from empirical political science the rapid increase in racial antagonism in the party’s platforms and behavior when in office (linklink). They offer a convincing demonstration of the racism that underlies the activism of the Tea Party.

The next readings are Justin Gest’s The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link) and Kathleen Blee’s edited volume The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link). These books provide an ethnographical perspective on the appeal of right-wing extremism in western democracies, deriving from rapid economic change (deindustrialization) and demographic change (immigration and the rising percentage of populations of color in both Britain and the US). Blee’s volume sheds much light on the role of gender in political mobilization by the right across the spectrum, with substantially more women involved in extremists groups in the US than in Europe.

Next we turn to both longstanding and current strategies by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India to manage politics through antagonism against India’s Muslims. Paul Brass’s book The Production Of Hindu-Muslim Violence In Contemporary India is the primary source (link), and several good pieces of journalism about the current violence in India against Muslims help to fill in the details of the current situation (linklinklink).

The course ends with a consideration of Robert Putnam’s volume Better Together: Restoring the American Community, which makes the case for civic engagement and civic unity — but in a voice that appears a decade behind events when it comes to the virulence of hate-based activism.

This is a course that is entirely organized around an intensive and engaged student experience. Each session involves lively discussion and student presentations (which have been excellent), and the course aims at helping the students develop their own ideas and judgments. We all learn through open, honest, and respectful dialogue, and every session is engaging and valuable. Most importantly, we have all come to see that these issues of democracy, equality, and intolerance and bigotry are an enormous challenge for all of us in the twenty-first century that we must solve.

(For the first session students are asked to view several relevant videos on YouTube:

John Rawls Lecture 1, Modern Political Philosophy

Hate Rising: White Supremacy in America

Robert Putnam on Immigration and Diversity

Cas Mudde on Right-wing Populism

These videos set the stage for many of the topics raised throughout the course.)

Community resilience

We know what is meant by saying that a physical system is resilient: for a given range of shocks, the system has the ability to recover its structural integrity. This does not mean that a resilient system is impervious to shocks, but rather that it is capable of recovery from a given range of shocks at a given level of severity (through redundancy, decentralized systems, or repair mechanisms). (Here is a discussion of urban resilience and fragility in face of natural disaster by Kathleen Tierney in The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resiliencelink.)

We also think we know something about individual resilience. It is a complex capacity of personality and character that permits the individual to regain equanimity after some of life’s common hazards — loss of a job, onset of a serious illness, death of a loved one. Here is how the American Psychological Association defines resilience (link):

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. 

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives. 

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. 

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

How does the idea of resilience work in application to communities — in particular, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious communities? Shocks occur in all communities — a violent crime is committed, a fiery speech is issued, a labor crisis occurs, a harvest fails. All of these incidents have the capacity to initiate a cycle of inter-group recrimination and separation. What features of community life and organization permit a multi-group community to regain its stability and inter-group harmony? What features exist that can stop the slide into escalation and eventual antagonism and violence across groups?

Historical experience in many parts of the world shows that communities of mixed populations sometimes degenerate into antagonism and violence across groups. The histories of ethnic and religious violence in India and the current tragedy of the Rohingya in Myanmar provide clear examples. Mixed communities that have lived peacefully and harmoniously are suddenly riven by mistrust, antagonism, and hate that lead to inter-group violence. (An earlier post dissected some of the pathways through which this process takes place; link.)

Here is how Paul Brass describes the emergence of violent collective action in India in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India.

Most commonly, the rhetoric is laced with words that encourage its members not to put up any longer with the attacks of the other but to retaliate against their aggression. There are also specific forms of action that are designed to provoke the other community into aggressive action, which is then met with a stronger retaliatory response. (24)

Here Brass describes a dynamic process of provocation, escalation, and inter-group competition that leads quickly to antagonism and violence. And, as he makes clear throughout his book, this process is often stimulated and prodded by political entrepreneurs who have an interest in inter-group antagonism.

So the question here is this: what features of community life can be developed and cultivated that can serve as “shock absorbers” working to damp down the slide towards antagonism? What social features can make a multi-group community more resilient in face of provocations towards separation and mistrust?

Without pretending to offer a full theory of inter-group community stability, there are a few measures that seem to be conducive to stability.

First, the existence of cross-group organizations and partnerships among organizations originating in the separate groups, seems to be a strongly stabilizing feature of a multi-group society. The presence of a group of leaders who are committed to enhancing trust and cooperation across group lines provides an important “fire break” when conflicts arise, because these leaders and organizations already have a basis of trust with each other, and a willingness to work together to reduce tensions and suspicions across groups.

Second, person-to-person relationships across groups (through neighborhoods, places of work, or family relations) provide a basis for resisting the slide towards suspicion and fear across groups. If Chandar and Ismael are friends at work, they are perhaps less likely to be swayed by Hindu nationalist rhetoric or Islamic separatist rhetoric, and less likely to join in a violent mob attacking the other’s home and community. Neighborhood and workplace integration ought to be retardants to the spread of inter-group hostility.

Third, policing and law enforcement can be an important buffer against the escalation of ethnic or religious tensions. If a Muslim shop is burned and the police act swiftly to find and arrest the arsonist, there will be a greater level of trust in the Muslim community that their security interests are being protected by the system of law.

Intergroup violence is the extreme case. But the separation of communities into mutually fearful and mistrustful groups defined by religion, race, or ethnicity is inherently bad, and it has the prospect of facilitating intergroup violence in the future. So discovering practical mechanisms of resilience is an enormously important task in these times of division and antagonism presented by our national political leaders.

Responding to hate

The Southern Poverty Law Center documents that hate groups and hate-based mobilization are on the rise in the United States (link, link). Here is a current map of hate-based groups monitored by SPLC:

Through provocative epithets, slogans, and extremist demonstrations a variety of hate groups — white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-muslim bigots, anti-immigrant activists, anti-LGBTQ extremists, and others — are seeking to establish a broader foothold in various parts of the country. They seek to build distrust, hate, and antagonism towards various groups and to undermine the bonds of community that hold together the multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities that exist all over the country.

We have also seen that social media can be used very intentionally by hate groups to cultivate mistrust, fear, and antagonism. This is an unsolved problem: Twitter, Facebook, and other social media are deliberately used to spread and cultivate hate.

These facts are easy to observe. The question here is a harder one: what are some of the ways that organizations and individuals can resist the onslaught of division and hate? How can a multi-ethnic or multi-racial community inoculate itself against the spread and influence of hate? How can our communities maintain and increase their resilience in the face of this organized effort?

Several things seem clear. One is that racist appeals generally seek to cultivate fear and resentment in their intended audiences. They work by cultivating mistrust across groups, framing the “other” as an interloper and a dangerous threat — a threat to safety, to jobs, and to the hegemony of one’s own group. And there is a logic of escalation that is implicit here. When the out-group perceives the growing antagonism and mistrust aimed towards its members, it is likely enough that individuals and organizations will become defensive — and in their defensive actions they may provide more basis for the hate-based organization to extend its efforts.

So how can a multi-cultural community prepare itself for these kinds of strategies of division and intolerance? It can work hard to cultivate cross-group knowledge, understanding, and trust. Progressive community-based organizations are key. When an ethnically-grounded CBO makes deliberate efforts to involve partners from other communities in its efforts, the organization furthers the knowledge of each other that is available to members of both groups, and it enhances confidence in both groups of the good intentions of the other. A higher level of knowledge across groups is an antidote to hate and mistrust. More deeply, a history of partnership, collaboration, and successful initiatives together provides a solid ground for confidence and trust across groups.

Community leaders have a key role to play in enhancing the resilience of a community. When the mayor of a city is clear in his or her commitment to the equal value of all groups in the city, when he or she maintains a high level of community engagement through city offices, the various social groups in the city are enabled to develop a higher level of trust in the institutions that surround them and the values of respect and equality that their polity embraces. A mayor can be an important source of community cohesion in the face of divisive events and extremist efforts.

Leaders and organizations in civil society are equally impactful in maintaining an environment of trust and respect. Hospitals, universities, faith-based institutions, social-service organizations, and civic clubs all have the capacity to influence the values and behavior of large numbers of people. By being explicit and clear in their commitment to civility, respect, and equality, they can have a major impact on social cohesion as well.

It is crucial that individuals, organizations, and leaders speak out when hate-based incidents occur. By doing so they signal their solidarity with the affected group, and they reaffirm the commitments of respect and equality that they have articulated in easier times.

In the longer term, it is crucial to help children and adolescents understand the values of inclusion, respect, and acceptance of others. This means that it is very important for schools, places of worship, playgrounds, or youth organizations be attuned to the affirmative value of a democratic, multi-cultural society, and what goes into participating in an inclusive social world. Children are naturally open to each other without regard to differences; it is imperative to cultivate and extend that trust and mutual acceptance into adulthood.

Each of these social forces have the potential for signaling and advancing a set of values of inclusion that provide a powerful buffer against the toxic workings of hate. And in the end, we have the ability to stand together and affirm the values of solidarity, mutual respect, and democratic equality that are anathema to the purveyors of hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a report with some very useful strategies for combating hate at the community level; link.

%d bloggers like this: