Suppression of Dissent
An important aspect of fascism or any kind of dictatorship is forcible suppression of opposition. In a fascist country, the state is all-powerful and all-important–if you’re not for it, you’re against it and therefore an enemy of the state.
The constitution of the Weimar Republic had quite modern freedoms of the press, with exceptions for film (porn) and for material for children determined on a case by case basis. As I mentioned two posts ago, once the Nazi Party took over in 1933 in Germany, they banned all other political parties and Hitler immediately started censoring the press. The German Student Union organized book burnings of “un-German” literature, including everything written by Jews. Hitler’s newly appointed minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels prescribed what could be written and talked about and how, and those who overstepped the boundaries could in the worst cases be executed or sent off to concentration camps.
At first glance it would seem that America is the exact opposite of Nazi Germany when it comes to freedom of speech and government propaganda. America prides itself on having absolute freedom of speech, as opposed to the more qualified freedom of speech in most European countries that draws the line at hate speech. In America the KKK can parade in the streets, as long as they obtain a permit. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t and has never been any suppression of speech or of the press in America.
Just think of gag rules. The first American gag rule was actually introduced in 1836, by–you guessed it!–pro-slavery groups in Congress who wanted to shut up the abolitionists. Nowadays, in some states doctors aren’t allowed to discuss abortion as an option with their patients. There are gag laws that prevent information being collected, for instance in agriculture, where gag rules regularly prevent research into issues such as ground contamination, etc. The NRA has also effectively banned any research into gun violence since 1996.
Banning books is also an all-American pastime. In library school in the Netherlands we learned about this practice, which flies in the face of democracy. Apparently Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first book to suffer from bans nationwide when it came out, because–right again!–it was an abolitionist novel, and it was one of the catalysts for the Civil War. In 1982 the American Library Association began Banned Book Week: one week a year libraries and bookstores draw attention to books that were once or are still banned in different places. Not many books are challenged on a national level, but many states, cities and school boards still ban books in the US. Hundreds of books are challenged every year, including the Harry Potter series (witchcraft), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (n-word) and The Cat in the Hat (letting a stranger into the house), though most frequent are objections to books because of–all together now!–non-white characters, religion or lack of it, or LGBTQ characters.
And there’s always good old intimidation. The KKK would place a burning cross on the front lawn of someone who was due to testify against them in court. The McCarthy Era is a good example of large-scale intimidation of politicians, artists and other influential public figures. In the early 1950s, first-term Michigan senator Joseph McCarthy went on a witch hunt against supposed communists in government and in the media. It got to the point where people didn’t dare speak out, afraid to lose their jobs or see their entire careers go up in flames.
After 9-11 there was also that general attitude of “if you’re not for us you’re against us,” that could be quite intimidating. where I lived in South Texas anyway. I’ve written here about my little flag incident at the local grocery store, which is funny looking back, but acquaintances had a big peace sign in their living room window and they argued about whether or not to take it down. The man said that would be cowardly; the woman was worried that their little kids could get hurt if a brick went flying through the glass one of those days. It was a valid concern.
Indoctrination and Propaganda
Of course the most effective way to get everyone on your side is not to suppress dissent, but to eradicate it altogether, through indoctrination and propaganda. Hitler much admired Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts and the captive audience it created. He knew that indoctrination starts with children, so he had them indoctrinated at school, in the Hitler Youth, at rallies on nationalist holidays, etc. Here’s a good read about that.
Propaganda: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. / Ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also :a public action having such an effect.
In Mein Kampf, the book Hitler wrote when he was in jail in 1926, he states the following about propaganda:
Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people… Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea.
He also writes the following:
The chief function of propaganda is to convince the masses, whose slowness of understanding needs to be given time so they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on their mind.
The Nazis used propaganda and indoctrination to spread ideas such as antisemitism, racism, Aryan superiority, etc. Not only did it spread the ideas, it created public tolerance, passivity and acceptance toward violence against Jews and other “enemies of the state”.
Violence has always been a much more prominent aspect of American society than in other developed countries. I have addressed American violence and Americans’ tolerance, passivity and acceptance of it, by and large, in previous posts. I have also addressed the way American children are indoctrinated from an early age into believing such nationalistic notions as “America is the best country in the world”, “America is the most free and most democratic country in the world”, “Everyone wants to come to America and be American”, etc. American school textbooks support and enforce this indoctrination.
Indoctrination and propaganda is not only an all-American thing. I just found an informative video on Facebook yesterday about the Daughters of the Confederacy. I wonder if Hitler got some of his ideas for Hitler Youth propaganda and school indoctrination from them, because it’s textbook. Starting in 1894, the Daughters of the Confederacy began spreading the Lost Cause doctrine in the Southern states, which claims that the South fought for a just cause, that slavery wasn’t bad and that slavery hadn’t been the reason for the Civil War. They spread this idea by erecting monuments left, right and center in the South, but also by putting their mark on school textbooks throughout the country and by creating the Children of the Confederacy, basically a Confederate Hitler Youth. Disguised as a youth group that does good things, too (they collect money to fight cancer, bless their hearts), it’s meant to make racists out of Southern white children from an early age. The above-mentioned video briefly shows the Confederate Catechism, but thanks to a blogger called Student of the Civil War, you can get a closer look here.
How successful the Daughters of the Confederacy were (and still are) is evidenced by the poor grasp of Civil War history, not only among Southerners, but also among Americans in general. I first visited the Unites States in 1978, after high school. I was invited to stay with a niece of my grandmother’s and her husband in Bakersfield, California. Apparently the TV mini-series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, had just run and one talk show after another was going on about how eye-opening it was. I didn’t understand. Shocking to see it rather than just read about it, yes, I’m sure (I only read it), but how was it eye-opening? I also never understood the obsession with the movie Gone With the Wind. Everyone is always going on about it, so I finally watched it a few years ago, and it was every millimeter as bad, as racist and as dated as I expected.
Somehow slavery came up during a conversation in Bakersfield and my great-aunt once or twice removed made a comment about how it hadn’t been that bad. I begged to differ and she responded: “Well, if it was so bad, how come so many of them stayed on the plantations after they were free?” So I explained why, and then her husband ripped into me (not for the first or last time), “You damn commies, think you can come here and tell us our history!” Well, clearly somebody had to.
As for the press, I remember learning in high school that most small towns in America got their national news from only a few national news agencies, so those companies basically controlled the information a whole lot of people got. Nowadays we have social media, so everyone can get the news from whichever sources they choose, but the local TV news across America is still mostly brought to you by a few companies, one of which is Sinclair Broadcast. It’s buying up more stations as we speak, since Trump and the FCC are loosening up limits to media ownership. Sinclair also just happens to be extremely pro-Trump in its views, so most of the national news brought to you by your local news station will be ultra-conservative and pure Trump propaganda.
It has always been relatively easy in America to publish or broadcast lies, which in turn makes it easy for one party to misrepresent the opposing party during elections and for politicians to lie about… well, anything. It also means that there really is no limit on lying by “news” programs, which enables newscasters to spout propaganda disguised as facts. The Netherlands has freedom of speech and of the press, except when something is a blatant lie. When someone lies about someone else, that’s libel and there are consequences.
In America there are consequences as well, in theory, but it’s open season in practice. As far as I could figure it out, there are three reasons why it’s harder to sue for libel in the United States than in most European countries. Freedom of speech in this context is pretty much unconditional; the plaintiff has to prove that the libelist knew the claim wasn’t true; and the Supreme Court forbids libel claims “for statements that are so ridiculous as to be patently false”.
In other words, in America you have the first amendment right to spread lies, and the more ridiculous your lies are, the better, because the court can’t be bothered with lies that are obvious to anyone with a pulse, and all you have to do if someone manages to sue you anyway is say you didn’t have a clue what you were talking about: “What can I say, Judge? I’ve got shit for brains.” So the more idiotic the lie, and the more (seemingly) ignorant the person spewing them, the more likely the situation continues unchecked. And if people hear something often enough, they start believing it. This explains America’s abundance of conspiracy theories, the birthers, Fox “News” and right-wing talk show hosts.
So suppression of dissent on the one hand and indoctrination and propaganda on the other are nothing new to America.
When Trump started his election campaign, he immediately started attacking the “mainstream media,” or “msm” in Twitter terms. He even corralled them in small gated areas guarded by his security during his stump speeches, visually suggesting that the the media were criminals. Until this day he never misses a single opportunity to vilify them. The media was addressing the fake news items that Trump and his supporters were putting out there (and now we know that at least some of that fake news was distributed by Russia) but Trump flipped the script and appropriated the term “fake news” to describe everything the media writes about him that he doesn’t like. When he sees something on the news that irks him, Trump immediately tweets about it, and his tweet becomes part of the news. Not one month into his presidency, he tweeted that the media were the enemy of the people and he recently tweeted that the licenses of some of the newspapers and TV stations ought to be revoked.
Never has a president of a self-respecting democracy interfered with the media like this. He doesn’t have the power to revoke media licenses and apparently there aren’t any licenses to revoke anyway, but his behavior is a good indication of what he would do with the press if he did have that power. He would close everything down. Everything but Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast, which are, for all intents and purposes, the Trump government propaganda outlets.
If Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast aren’t officially propaganda outlets, Trump TV definitely is. Broadcast from Trump Tower, it claims to offer the “real news”, all good-news stories about President Trump. Trump has created more than a million jobs! Trump has turned the country around! (That Renoir? Trump painted it himself. Renoir was just a fake and a phony. Sad!) –Trump has clearly taken some Propaganda 101 classes with Vladimir Putin. It would be funny were it not that so many people lap it up.
The next post will be the last in this series about fascism in America.