Active Participation

In the past week, as the US presidential election drew near, perhaps bringing catastrophe with it, I found myself thinking again and again of Sebastian Haffner’s book, Geschichte eines Deutschen. (The title means “Story of a German,” but the English translation is sold under the unfortunate title Defying Hitler, there evidently being an imperative to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a book title: Jesus saves, but Hitler sells). The book is a memoire of Haffner’s life growing up in WWI and Weimar Berlin, and then in the early years of the Nazi regime. Together with Haffner’s study of Hitler, it is the best thing I have ever read on Hitler and the Third Reich.

I read Haffner’s memoire more than a decade ago, but a number of particularly vivid passages have long stuck in my mind. Among these is a scene in which Haffner’s father finds himself obliged to express his support for the new Nazi government. I’m going to quote it at length, because it seems to me to touch on something relevant to our own times.

My father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers any more and he could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he too received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. ‘Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full… Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension…’

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organisations and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that and finally sign a printed declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

‘Are you going to fill it in?’ I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced and said nothing for a long time. Then he asked, ‘Do you think I should?’


‘I wonder what you and your mother would live on?’ he said at last.

‘I really don’t know,’ he repeated after a while. ‘I don’t even know,’ and he tried to smile, ‘how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.’

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he went out himself and took it to the letter box before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had none the less been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father’s weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

Why, you ask, do I find myself thinking about this particular passage?

Item: a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland was taken to court for its refusal to produce a cake with the message, “Support Gay Marriage.” The court case recently came to an end, and the bakery lost: by refusing to make the cake, they committed a crime.

Item: a professor in Canada is being persecuted at present because of his objection to new pronouns (ze, zim, zer, and others) which are supposed to replace ‘he’ and ‘she.’ “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” he says, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”

Needless to say, there has been an abundance of commentary on these two items, on either side, but I don’t think any of it has really gotten to the heart of the matter, and I think the Haffner passage I quoted does. In the case of both items, the demand is not that dissenters be required to tolerate others with different opinions, nor is it that they must refrain from criticising the dominant ideology. No, the demand is that people must be compelled to participate actively in support of an ideology they reject.

The question of whether we agree with each end in question is beside the point (me, I’d be happy to produce the gay-marriage-cake, but not to switch pronouns). The fact that these two items line up in the decisive respect with Haffner’s tale from the Third Reich is, I think, a window into a problem of our times. Progressive activists are not usually wicked people, and they act as they do out of a desire to bring about something good. Their myopic focus upon their own ends is to be expected of activists. What should concern us is rather the failure of society more generally to assert the right to dissent from what the majority believe. To the extent that we forget that right, we quickly find ourselves in some very poor company.


How Could It Happen?

Some years ago I was walking through Heidelberg in Germany, and noticed a book sitting in a store window. The title: Wie konnte es geschehen? That is, How Could It Happen? This was the question for the Germans, and it’s now the question for much of the West.

The immediate question is, how did we get to a point where something like Trump was possible? If he wins on Tuesday, the question will become academic: we will have moved from whatever mistakes brought this situation about to the consequences of those mistakes. If he doesn’t win, maybe there’s a chance to do something to correct this. I’m not optimistic – indeed, I’m utterly pessimistic – but I see the possible beginnings of that conversation out there already, and it’s worth trying to explore where it should go.

The problem, of course, is not only American. In France we have the FN, in Germany, AfD, in Holland, Geert Wilders’ party, and so on: unsavoury populist parties that reject much of the consensus that has reigned for a generation. America is more of a concern because it’s far more important than anywhere in Europe, but in the long term, I’m more inclined to worry about where Europe could go. (I’m not sure where to place the UK in all this, since it has enjoyed some success in defusing the problem – but that’s another post).

So where is it all coming from? There are plenty of proximate causes, but in the end I think it comes to this: the elites have failed us all by overreaching. The immediate problem may be coming from the masses and from the right, but I’m increasingly inclined to see that as a reaction. The most fundamental problem, the first mover in all of this, comes from above, from the intellectuals, the universities and the media – i.e., from the left. The problem is not that they aimed at something bad, but rather that they pushed too hard towards something good, pursuing it in a one-sided fashion. Further, the problem is systemic, a matter of a thousand paper cuts rather than some one big mistake that some one person made somewhere.

I do see the beginnings of the conversation that I think needs to happen (though again, this is not to say I’m optimistic that it will happen).

If there’s a problem on the left, it’s no surprise to find that the right gives a clear view of it. Accordingly, the (in)famous “Flight 93” piece points right to the heart of the matter: “the Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”

That’s what I would trace things back to: the left, in its attempts to seek out and crush bigotry, has cast the net too wide, failing to keep in mind that not everyone caught up in the net belongs there.

When Andrew Sullivan, in an absolutely spot-on piece on the likely results of a Trump victory on Tuesday, mentions in passing that “the cultural left has overplayed its hand on social and racial issues,” I think he’s pointing in a similar direction. And this piece by Charles Cook notes that the left has a problem coming up with adequate language to describe Trump, having already used all the most damning words on much more moderate people.

Most significant of all is a video from Friday, in which Bill Maher, a left-wing comedian, says the following (from 0:40): “I know liberals made a big mistake, because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world, and he wasn’t. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way – I gave Obama a million dollars ‘cause I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much, or yours. Or John McCain. They were honourable men who we disagreed with, and we should’ve kept it that way. So we cried wolf, and that was wrong. But this is real. This is gonna be way different.”

I’ve long thought Maher remarkable for his readiness to think – and express – thoughts that other popular media figures shy away from. It may be that his remarks are the last we hear from the left along these lines for some time: if the crisis passes, it will likely be business as usual again before long. But if we survive the vote for president, that will do nothing to address the problems that brought us here. The next Trump may be more intelligent, more calculating in his approach to minorities…

I think the present moment of crisis has shone a light on an important truth, and I’ve given a sketch here of where I might like to go with this. Though this is not going to be the only thing I write about (I hope), it will provide a thread of continuity, as I try to define things more clearly and provide examples.






It Begins (Again)

I don’t have time for this. Really I don’t. I tried a blog a few months ago and gave up for lack of time. But the reality is, I have too many thoughts – and anyway, I’ve observed that a blog doesn’t need to be updated every month: David Paxton, for example, has written some quite useful things, and he sometimes goes months without posting.

More than having thoughts, though, I have more and more of a feeling that ours is a time in need of thinking. It’s becoming clear that the world I grew up in is being shaken apart by a gradual move towards the extremes. If anything can be done about this, it will start with thinking. That will be a guiding theme.

The great English essayist Theodore Dalrymple occasionally quotes Pascal: “Let us work, then, to think well, for that is the principle of morality.” Let this be our motto.