WGN TV: Ignorance, Mendacity, or Willful Cluelessness?

Quite a number of commenters, and several email correspondents, have suggested that I was too generous in attributing WGN TV’s appalling Yom Kippur graphic to ignorance, and suggest active mendacity as a likely explanation. Perhaps someone on the WGN graphics staff did it on purpose for his or her own motives; it will be interesting to see if the results of WGN’s internal investigation are shared with the public and whether the responsible party or parties will be publicly identified and are disciplined or fired. I decided to lead with ignorance because it puts the station in the awkward position of saying . . . what? No, we’re not ignorant; we’re anti-Semitic! Leading with “ignorance” put them in a no-win situation I figured.

There is a third possibility that ought to be considered, especially in the context of all the current liberal happy talk about the Iran agreement: willful ignorance. Several weeks back I shared a post here about Robert Brooks, one of the few academics I could find from the late 1930s who understood and spoke clearly about what the German Nazi regime meant. (I subsequently learned that Brooks died in 1941.)

This emerged as part of research I’m doing for a book I have under way, and it might be worth sharing a brief excerpt here:

Brooks was right to express a note of despair for the future of his academic discipline. The contemporaneous voices that raised the alarm about the nature and consequences of totalitarianism came mostly from outside the ranks of political science. One thinks of Reinhold Niebuhr calling the moment a “crisis” for theology, or the erratic Walter Lippmann’s sudden anxiety over the totalitarian potential of centralized power (“collectivism”) in his 1936 The Good Society. But even Lippmann had to shake off a default to wishful thinking, such as describing one of Hitler’s 1933 speeches as “statesmanlike” and the “authentic voice of a civilized people” that was “evidence of good faith.” Sounding like a dean of multicultural diversity on an American campus today, Lippmann argued that “to deny today that Germany can speak as a civilized power because uncivilized things are being done in Germany is in itself a deep form of intolerance.” The Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning’s bestselling Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West attempted to convey that what was happening in Germany was a radical moral and spiritual disfigurement, and not a transitory detour into dictatorship. (Rauschning’s credibility was undermined by doubts about the authenticity of some of his subsequent work, especially Hitler Speaks, and in any case Revolution of Nihilism never did define or analyze nihilism in a serious way.)

In general most of the flood of books and academic articles about Hitler’s Nazi regime and the rise of fascism in Europe in the late 1930s partook of the current enthusiasms for historicism, evolutionism, behaviorism and positivism that reigned supreme over the interment of political philosophy. Hitler’s rapid and ruthless centralization of power, entailing the abolition of Germany’s previously robust federal structure, was analyzed with the clinical detachment of a biologist looking at bacteria in a petri dish under a microscope. In some cases the phenomena of fascism and Communism were treated as reciprocal symptoms for the weaknesses of democracy. The diffuseness of fascism as an ideology, in stark contrast with Soviet Communism, reinforced the tendency to analyze it institutionally rather than ideologically or philosophically. Eric Voegelin wrote about debates over the changing political scene in Germany:“At that time there was the great debate among jurists abut whether the Weimar constitution, which indeed was never abolished but only changed, was in fact still the constitution of the Hitler Reich or whether a revolution had occurred. Wonderful discussion among jurists. In the meantime, people were killed.”

Examples abound. One book at the time said that “the dictatorship of fascism is charismatic, nationalistic, and permanent.” In “The Nazis Reform the Reich,” Albert Lepawsky of the University of Chicago wrote in 1936:

This process of the internal balance of power may be fruitfully examined in Nazi Germany today. What has the National Socialist government set out to do, what has it accomplished, and which way is it tending in this matter of the shifts in power in national, state, regional, and local government and administration? . . .

The Nazis profess to be welding a true German Folk out of the confusion of social and economic groupings, but their job seems to be also one of fashioning an integrated state structure. Indeed, the class consciousness which the Nazis abhor may remain, and the Nazis themselves may pass it on. Nevertheless, they certainly will have made some contribution to the historic process of reforming the German Reich.

Roger Wells of Bryn Mawr College, writing in 1935 about Hitler’s rollup of the previously robust local governments in Germany, concluded: “There is some justification, therefore, for the National Socialist contention that the Deutsche Gemeindeordnung does not destroy local self-government, but, on the contrary, aims to build it anew upon more secure foundations so that it may once again recover and bloom as in the nineteenth century.”

Or take Arnold J. Zurcher of New York University, writing about Hitler’s popular referenda in 1935:

Although the ultimate form of the National Socialist political system in Germany is not yet clear, certain institutions are emerging which bid fair to make more than a passing claim to perdurance in that system. . . Even after discounting intangible official pressure, of which there undoubtedly was a great deal, and downright coercion and intimidation at the polls, of which there was probably very little, the electoral record remains an amazing one, both as respects participation in the balloting and the endorsement given the cabinet’s policy.

A 1936 book, Fascism and National Socialism by Michael Florinsky, was an open apologia for Mussolini’s regime, comparing it favorably to FDR’s New Deal. A number of books and articles criticized fascism for failing to represent a true alternative to industrial capitalism, which was assumed to be on its last legs, even in the U.S.

I think you can see the same kind of willful blindness at work today. Not only historical forgetfulness, but the willfully clueless intellectual climate that causes media organizations like Reuters to refuse purposely to use the term “terrorism” to refer to Islamic terrorists, are the kind of things that enable WGN’s blunder to occur. We can expect more of this.