For those of us under the age of 100, the name of journalist and radio commentator Dorothy Thompson may not ring a bell. Yet, when her picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1939, the accompanying article compared her influence to that of Eleanor Roosevelt. A few years earlier while working in Germany, Ms. Thompson had interviewed Hitler. Her uncomplimentary write-ups about him made her the first American journalist to be expelled from that country as the Nazis ascended to power.
This is to say that her article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1941 entitled “Who Goes Nazi” bears attention. Ms. Thompson creates an imaginary party at which she divides the mingling guests into four categories. She tags them as, “…the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers,” as well as those, “who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.”
She asserts that being a Nazi is not a matter of nationality or ethnicity. She is using the word Nazi as a shorthand for those who, while they may be educated and sophisticated, are capable of and likely to buy into an ideology of hate, cruelty and destruction. In this experiment, Jews can be Nazis and Aryans can fall into her last, noble category. In an imaginary party that she posits, Ms. Thompson goes around the room, putting each guest into one of the four categories. While she elucidates her thinking throughout the article, she writes that she sees a generation rising that is ripe for becoming Nazis. As she says of this youth, “His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected.”
Doesn’t that sound like a good description of many university students (and members of Congress) today?
While Dorothy Thompson is long gone, Professor Robert P. George is, thankfully, alive and active. A professor of jurisprudence and the director of the James Madison program at Princeton University, you would do well to become familiar with his writings.
My husband is honored to consider him a friend, and recently Professor George shared his own experiment. He sometimes asks his students if, had they been white Southerners before abolition, they would have participated in the fight against slavery. Amazingly, each and every student insists that he or she would have done so.
With more maturity, wisdom and honesty, Professor George knows that this is rubbish. He proceeds to tell them that he will accept their answers if they can point to a situation in their own lives where they risked social alienation and professional and economic damages for standing up for unpopular victims of injustice.
That is the equivalent of asking them to follow in the path of John Adams defending the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre or of those who provided a safe space on the Underground Railway in the 1800s risking jail, physical harm and/or damage to their property. In today’s terms, it might mean being one of the tens of thousands who post their messages on the #Walkaway movement page. Getting applause by virtue signaling that you are racist because of your skin color or that you support BLM doesn’t cut it.
The question is not why all good people did not assist runaway slaves or hide Jews during the Holocaust. I certainly do not know that I would have done so. Not surprisingly, in Nazi-occupied Europe, people’s responses differed in countries where the penalty for hiding Jews was jail vs. countries where the penalty was being sent to a concentration camp or watching your children murdered before your eyes. While I venerate those who risked their lives to save others, I do not know if I would rise to their level. I think it more likely that, especially as a mother having to put her children’s lives on the line, I would not. I’m not being modest; I’m being honest. However, that is highly problematic. What in blessedly quiet times is prudence may, in momentous times, be cowardice. What calls for discretion in quiet times can demand reckless courage in consequential times.
Recently, author Izabella Tabarovsky wrote about an oft-shared quote by Sergei Dovlatov. He was a Soviet dissident before the communist regime collapsed. (Full disclosure: I had no idea who he was until I read her article.) It seems that Mr. Dovlatov’s words are often quoted pointing out that cursing Stalin for his murderous and evil regime is fine, but Stalin could not have done what he did had millions of ordinary people not been willing to denounce their co-workers, neighbors and relatives.
Neither Hitler nor Stalin nor Mao built their following by saying that they wanted to murder millions or that their policies would lead to ruin and poverty for their nations. They spoke of valor and brotherhood, of fairness and undoing the wrongs of the past. Step by step, they built a culture of fear and punishment.
I recently read a question from an individual who didn’t know how to respond to a message from senior management announcing that, on a specific day, everyone at work would wear a t-shirt the office was providing that said, “Black Lives Matter.” The writer was asking what he should do. He judges the political BLM movement to be anti-American, anti-freedom and dangerous. Yet, not wearing the shirt would most likely damage his chances for promotion if not altogether cause him to lose his job. Most of those who responded to his dilemma urged him to call in sick. I certainly do not have the moral fortitude or virtue to recommend that he take a stand, but I fear that all of us are increasingly being called upon to do exactly that.
I don’t risk my job by writing these words, though admittedly, during the Obama administration the American Alliance of Jews and Christians and we personally received more tax audits than one might expect. Paraphrasing Dorothy Thompson, people with dark skin can be racist and those with white skin can champion true freedom and love for all. Among those who speak of an end to racism are those who are actually saying, “I suffered and now it’s my turn to make others suffer.” There are also those who see a vehicle they can use to advance their personal fortunes. These are not the majority by any means, but their violence and evil are enabled by those who do not speak against them.
Were she alive, Ms. Thompson might call these haters the “natural racists.” Many more people fall into the category of those, “whom democracy itself has created, [and] the certain-to-be fellow-travelers…” As Sergei Dovlatov pointed out, just as slavery and Jim Crow laws existed for too long because even those who were horrified by them did not necessarily speak up, the cancel culture that is poised to end freedom of speech and expression in America cannot win if only the truly racist, power-hungry and hate-filled advocate for it. That, my friends, lays the burden upon us.