Saturday, December 17, 2016

Normalizing the Abnormal, Then and Now

Normalizing fascists

John Broich, Case Western Reserve University

How to report on a fascist?

How to cover the rise of a political leader who’s left a paper trail of anti-constitutionalism, racism and the encouragement of violence? Does the press take the position that its subject acts outside the norms of society? Or does it take the position that someone who wins a fair election is by definition “normal,” because his leadership reflects the will of the people?

These are the questions that confronted the U.S. press after the ascendance of fascist leaders in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

A leader for life

Benito Mussolini secured Italy’s premiership by marching on Rome with 30,000 blackshirts in 1922. By 1925 he had declared himself leader for life. While this hardly reflected American values, Mussolini was a darling of the American press, appearing in at least 150 articles from 1925-1932, most neutral, bemused or positive in tone.

Benito Mussolini speaks at the dedication ceremonies of Sabaudia on Sept. 24, 1934. AP Photo

The Saturday Evening Post even serialized Il Duce’s autobiography in 1928. Acknowledging that the new “Fascisti movement” was a bit “rough in its methods,” papers ranging from the New York Tribune to the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Chicago Tribune credited it with saving Italy from the far left and revitalizing its economy. From their perspective, the post-WWI surge of anti-capitalism in Europe was a vastly worse threat than Fascism.

Ironically, while the media acknowledged that Fascism was a new “experiment,” papers like The New York Times commonly credited it with returning turbulent Italy to what it called “normalcy.”

Yet some journalists like Hemingway and journals like the New Yorker rejected the normalization of anti-democratic Mussolini. John Gunther of Harper’s, meanwhile, wrote a razor-sharp account of Mussolini’s masterful manipulation of a U.S. press that couldn’t resist him.

The ‘German Mussolini’

Mussolini’s success in Italy normalized Hitler’s success in the eyes of the American press who, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, routinely called him “the German Mussolini.” Given Mussolini’s positive press reception in that period, it was a good place from which to start. Hitler also had the advantage that his Nazi party enjoyed stunning leaps at the polls from the mid ‘20’s to early ‘30’s, going from a fringe party to winning a dominant share of parliamentary seats in free elections in 1932.

But the main way that the press defanged Hitler was by portraying him as something of a joke. He was a “nonsensical” screecher of “wild words” whose appearance, according to Newsweek, “suggests Charlie Chaplin.” His “countenance is a caricature.” He was as “voluble” as he was “insecure,” stated Cosmopolitan.

German youth study the newspaper on May 18, 1931. AP Photo

When Hitler’s party won influence in Parliament, and even after he was made chancellor of Germany in 1933 – about a year and a half before seizing dictatorial power – many American press outlets judged that he would either be outplayed by more traditional politicians or that he would have to become more moderate. Sure, he had a following, but his followers were “impressionable voters” duped by “radical doctrines and quack remedies,” claimed the Washington Post. Now that Hitler actually had to operate within a government the “sober” politicians would “submerge” this movement, according to The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. A “keen sense of dramatic instinct” was not enough. When it came to time to govern, his lack of “gravity” and “profundity of thought” would be exposed.

In fact, The New York Times wrote after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship that success would only “let him expose to the German public his own futility.” Journalists wondered whether Hitler now regretted leaving the rally for the cabinet meeting, where he would have to assume some responsibility.

Yes, the American press tended to condemn Hitler’s well-documented anti-Semitism in the early 1930s. But there were plenty of exceptions. Some papers downplayed reports of violence against Germany’s Jewish citizens as propaganda like that which proliferated during the foregoing World War. Many, even those who categorically condemned the violence, repeatedly declared it to be at an end, showing a tendency to look for a return to normalcy.

Journalists were aware that they could only criticize the German regime so much and maintain their access. When a CBS broadcaster’s son was beaten up by brownshirts for not saluting the F├╝hrer, he didn’t report it. When the Chicago Daily News’ Edgar Mowrer wrote that Germany was becoming “an insane asylum” in 1933, the Germans pressured the State Department to rein in American reporters. Allen Dulles, who eventually became director of the CIA, told Mowrer he was “taking the German situation too seriously.” Mowrer’s publisher then transferred him out of Germany in fear of his life.

By the later 1930s, most U.S. journalists realized their mistake in underestimating Hitler or failing to imagine just how bad things could get. (Though there remained infamous exceptions, like Douglas Chandler, who wrote a loving paean to “Changing Berlin” for National Geographic in 1937.) Dorothy Thompson, who judged Hitler a man of “startling insignificance” in 1928, realized her mistake by mid-decade when she, like Mowrer, began raising the alarm.

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” she reflected in 1935. “He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.” Applying the lesson to the U.S., she wrote, “When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.”

The Conversation

John Broich, Associate Professor, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker wrote about the 2016 Nobel Prize awards. She started this way: 
At Saturday morning’s Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, after the Swedish royal anthem was played, Carl-Henrik Heldin, the chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, delivered a brief speech to the collected laureates and guests. King Carl XVI Gustaf, his wife, Queen Silvia, and their daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, had assembled behind him, bedecked in gloriously elaborate, heavily festooned ensembles. The air was rarified. Onstage, things were glinting. “In times like these, the Nobel Prize is important,” Heldin said. What he meant by the phrase “times like these”—that our days were dark—seemed immediately evident to everyone in the room. “Alfred Nobel wanted to reward those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
This year's Nobel for literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. You can watch the presentation of the award here. He was not there to accept his award today, but Patti Smith accepted on his behalf (she begins singing at the 1:03 mark). In what was clearly an emotional experience for her, she stumbled. The orchestra needed to start again. She performed A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

In "times like these," this is a very appropriate award for commentary on our shared existence.

Here are the lyrics.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Words v. Videos and Images

What is the internet? A short answer might be: "everything!"

But as I intentionally try to step back from Facebook and Twitter as outlets for simply sharing links to articles that I've read or find interesting, I'm struck by the challenge to do so. I am a little more selective in sharing articles of interest and relevance to contemporary conversations, but it's addictive to stay in the game. This is where everyone is and social media seems to be the platform of choice for a variety of reasons.

What really got me thinking about this was an article in the MIT Technology Review by Hossein Derakhshan. Building on a recent post and the challenge of seeing the world through not only one's preferred and often myopic worldview, the point Derakhshan makes is that social media has become more like watching TV rather than reading a magazine or essay. It seems we've all been taken by the visual and entertaining nature and allure of GIFs, videos from last night's late night entertainers, and data visualization.

This brings me back to Derakhshan. He writes:

If I say that social media aided Donald Trump’s election, you might think of fake news on Facebook. But even if Facebook fixes the algorithms that elevate phony stories, there’s something else going on: social media represents the ultimate ascendance of television over other media. 
I've been warning about this since November 2014, when I was freed from six years of incarceration in Tehran, a punishment I received for my online activism in Iran. Before I went to prison, I blogged frequently on what I now call the open Web: it was decentralized, text-centered, and abundant with hyperlinks to source material and rich background. It nurtured varying opinions. It was related to the world of books. 
Then for six years I got disconnected; when I left prison and came back online, I was confronted by a brave new world. Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.
I can recall my experience of the internet before Facebook existed, particularly as it related to newsworthy issues. Pre-Facebook and News Feeds, we had AOL Instant Messenger for chatting back and forth within our dorms and with people far and wide. That's not all that different from the ease of Facebook Messenger today, but those conversations were not embedded within an experience of a News Feed and knowing what that other person was looking at, "liking," and commenting on. If I was chatting on AIM, I was communicating with you without knowing what you were looking at on your equally clunky Dell, HP, or Compaq desktop computer. There was a degree of privacy and autonomy that has largely disappeared. To know what you thought about social issues required me to know you, to talk with you. If I interact with someone on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, it is nearly impossible not to know their political views and some of the more intimate elements of their lives simply because social media encourages (pushes) us to share and consume constantly.

My consumption of news during that earlier phase of life was distinctly different. I went directly to the New York Times and (the then) MSNBC. To read news stories I had to find news stories. Now it comes to me in an endless stream.

I've always appreciated long-form journalism and the depth that comes from such work. As we collectively continue to embrace quick and immediately consumable media, I remain committed to--ideally, even more so now--to the written word with depth, substance, and necessary complexity, rather than the more consumable, shareable, simple, and often wrong answers to our most pressing problems. This also points to the importance of talking about these complex issues with people, ideally with differing and competing understandings and interpretations. One of biggest concerns is that we don't have many of these spaces, whether in real life or on a platform such as Facebook. How do we have conversations that are substantive and not simply combative? That's a question I struggle to answer.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Beyond disgust and shame in a post-truth world

I watched a video posted on Facebook this morning from CNN about an interview with a few ardent Trump supporters. As the text accompanying the video stated, "Donald Trump supporters made several debunked claims about election fraud in a post-election interview with CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota."

One comment made during this interview was regarding 3 million illegal voters in California. When pressed, the women making the comment didn't speak specifics about the issue. She walked back the earlier comment she made about the number. She also referred to President Obama saying illegal immigrants could vote by referring to an interview which has been proven to be edited to be deceptive by Fox Business Network (here is the video in question).

The import question here is raised by the reporter: where do you get your information? The response: "from the media...all across the media." Later multiple people stated you could simply "Google it."

While my immediate response is what idiots these people are, my slightly more reflective response is that this is exactly why we need civic education, discussion, and deliberation about important issues with one another, especially those with whom we disagree. We can quite easily dismiss this woman as someone who is uninformed and lacking basic knowledge. But what steps, practically, might we take to engage someone like this who is relying on outlets of information for confirmation of her presumed positions? This is one of the great challenges we face now in a "post-truth" environment.

While "post-truth" was the 2016 word of the year for Oxford Dictionary, we have long wrestled with the uncomfortable truths as a society. Here is quite an episode of The Diane Rehm Show on this issue in our society. I would encourage you to listen to this in its entirety.

It is important to have settings where ideas--including absurd ideas--are able to be expressed. Allow them then to be stand up to some scrutiny. Have a claim about 3 million illegal voters in California face the light of day. But we can't simply express our disgust from afar. This is where civic work has come to in. We don't win people over by simply supplying facts to back our claims. In fact, they can further divide us into our ideological campus. If you want a more academic take on this, take a look at this paper recently posted on the SSRN. The authors of this paper also wrote a piece in the New York Times about this research. While now dated (Sept. 2), their point is instructive to us, particularly the last line:
Voters are now receiving a steady stream of both positive and negative information about Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Which kind of news will have a large impact will depend partly on people’s motivations and initial convictions. 
But there’s an important qualification. In our experiment, a strong majority showed movement; few people were impervious to new information. Most people were willing to change their views, at least to some extent. 
For those who believe in learning, and the possibility of democratic self-government, that’s very good news.

UPDATED - December 3, 2016

Dan Rather, in a post on Facebook, has offered another way to think about the challenge (and impossibility) of living in a "post-truth world." That commentary can be found here.

UPDATED December 11, 2016

Steve Inskeep, of NPR fame, offers a rephrasing that might be more helpful. Rather than "post-truth," he offers "post-trust" as a more useful, accurate, and appropriate term. Read his approach to making sure you're reading and being appropriately critical and skeptical here

Sunday, November 20, 2016


It has been nearly four years since I've done anything with this blog. In many regards, it feels like a vestige tail from a digital animal long gone. Yet, here it is. And it is particularly because it is something that feels out of place that I would like to start using this more.

Since I last did anything here, I've become more active via Facebook and Twitter. I've written academic articles and am working on a number of projects that get at the heart of the types of questions I want to explore professionally. I hope to outline some of that work here in the future. So this is a reintroduction of sorts. While I will continue to write, post, and engage through various media, it seems like a step back from the always immediate and ever-present cycle of news.

I realize that, in my own little way, I contribute to the constant process of refreshing of News Feeds and the like. It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from a writer that I should turn to more often than I have in recent years. This is the first of two points I want to make.

In an essay published in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice, Thomas Merton has an amazingly timely and insightful remark that I often think of when I'm finding myself consumed by "news," particularly the immediate and round-the-clock process we now see through uncritical eyes. Here is Merton's quote:

What was on TV? I have watched TV twice in my life. I am frankly not terribly interested in TV anyway. Certainly I do not pretend that by simply refusing to keep up with the latest news I am therefore unaffected by what goes on, or free of it all. Certainly events happen and they affect me as they do other people. It is important for me to know about them too: but I refrain from trying to know them in their fresh condition as “news.” When they reach me they have become slightly stale. I eat the same tragedies as others, but in the form of tasteless crusts. The news reaches me in the long run through books and magazines, and no longer as a stimulant. Living without news is like living without cigarettes (another peculiarity of the monastic life). The need for this habitual indulgence quickly disappears. So, when you hear news without the “need” to hear it, it treats you differently. And you treat it differently too. 
This leads to my second point: not only might we be well-served to step back a bit, but we would also seemingly benefit from speaking and engaging with others unlike ourselves. As we know from the "blue" and "red" feeds that shape our lives, and this great SNL skit below, we largely live in our own bubbles and (mostly) like it that way.

John Oliver has also done a great job pointing out, in more detail, our bubbles.

I argue that we can and should engage with those around us, particularly those who don't share our political views. A recent story in the Manhattan Mercury about my work spells this out a bit more. I made a similar point in a USA Today interview: we can't scapegoat or honestly clump everyone who doesn't agree with me into some category, as easy or as comforting as that might be.

So what is to be done? Here are some interesting/thoughtful/provocative links to help us see beyond our bubbles.
I hope to, with some regularity, write here rather than always posting and sharing via Twitter and Facebook. You're welcome and encouraged to follow here. You can sign up for RSS, but I will also make these posts available through other media. But as Merton helpfully reminds me, there is a benefit to stepping back. I am easily consumed by information, but I'm not always sure it's helpful. I'm going to try to do my part make sense of our work, not only through the algorithm Facebook thinks I want but through a more critical perspective and one that is open to others.