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a pro-Palestine woman protestor is surrounded by UM campus police
UM Campus Police surrounded the barricaded-off pro-Palestine protestors on May 2, 2024. Photo by Reed Jones 

Editor’s Note | No Time for Complacency: Democracy Is the Superstructure We Must Protect

“Fascism is an ultranationalist, authoritarian political philosophy. It combines elements of nationalism, militarism, economic self-sufficiency, and totalitarianism. It opposes communism, socialism, pluralism, individual rights and equality, and democratic government.”

Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia

I was in Atlanta flying back from Europe when I first saw the video clips of the rather revealing University of Mississippi protest against Israel’s tactics in Gaza and the counter-protest that branded the protesters as anti-Israel and “pro-Hamas” as politicians cheered them on social media. I was already feeling pensive as we’d just spent two weeks “chasing Nazis,” as I called it, in the Netherlands, Berlin, Germany’s Teutoburg Forest and then a couple of days in London. We’d toured the transit camp where Anne Frank and other children and families were imprisoned for a few weeks before being shipped to Auschwitz.

In Germany, we had touched sections of the Berlin Wall that are now an outdoor art gallery celebrating democracy and freedom and saw an exhibit on the site of the bombed SS headquarters describing the steady acceptance of evil that led, perhaps inevitably, to the Final Solution. Make no mistake: It happened in steps as fascism does.

Graffiti on Berlin wall, with the Mercedes building in the distance
The East Side Gallery, the longest open-air gallery in the world, displays paintings and graffiti commemorating the wall that the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic erected in 1961 around democratic West Berlin to keep East Germans from fleeing to the west. Many young people grew up tagging the wall as a form of protest, and many Germans were killed trying to scale it. Photo by Todd Stauffer

Simply put, we’d observed just how fast tyranny and oppression can rise after a budding despot figures out how to push the right buttons and has the patience and fortitude to play people’s worst bigotries like a well-worn fiddle.

We’d seen and absorbed dark history that gets filtered out of American textbooks or at least stripped into easy binary sound bites that leave out chunks of the real story. In Berlin, a city devastated first by Nazism and then by communism, I kept thinking about Mississippians who’ve long called anybody a “Marxist” for simply disagreeing with them, or for seeking equal rights and equity for anyone other than themselves. Being a decent human being makes you a “red” to hear them tell it.

No, baby, they’re both corrupt systems of governing as history has proved repeatedly. And while American democracy has never achieved perfection, or been doled out equitably, the alternative is far, far worse as we’ll all soon find out if we don’t tread very carefully this year. We can never shrug at or appease fascistic rhetoric or its source; that is throwing fuel on a wildfire ready to explode.

Democracy Is Messy

I saw the UM tweets while sitting in the airport just hours after watching the chilling “Zone of Interest” on the flight. I saw the majority-women group protesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scorched-earth decisions and the mostly male counter-protesters bent on belittling them into shutting up as middle fingers flew. I had several thoughts at once about what I witnessed: “that’s brave”; “that’s vile”; “thank goodness the university let them protest”; and “this is what democracy looks like.”

Democracy is messy, and it’s supposed to be. Public protest is a requisite tool that keeps its wheels turning, whether the Boston Tea Party or the brave challenges of racism and the Vietnam War by young people willing to die for freedom in the 1960s. The founders of our nation knew that, and forbade the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This right to disagree, as ugly as it can look, is core to democracy. And freedom doesn’t just flow one direction: People indeed have the right to counter-protest or try to scream louder even if they make asses of themselves and offend us to our core; and we all have the right to decide and express what we think about how they do it.

A wall describing Chronology of the Genocide of the Sinti and Roma
For years, Nazis dehumanized Jewish people, calling them vermin, animals and untermenschen (subhuman) to convince Germans and others to support their slavery, imprisonment and extermination. But they also targeted other groups including people disparagingly known as “Gypsies.” Photo by Todd Stauffer

This core free-speech tenet is expressed well in this famous quote by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a British woman who is describing the French author Voltaire’s views on free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In so defending the “right” to speech, if not the actual words and expression choices, we are thus defending democracy and making it more likely that it will continue for all of us in this nation and beyond.

It is incumbent on each of us to fight for democracy even as those who want to disguise fascism as freedom, as they always do, are willing to destroy it, seemingly without knowing what those choices have done to sycophants and appeasers of madmen. The whole point is how we each respond to the struggle to keep it going. Complacency will bring democracy’s death.

I noticed in Europe that people seem to be paying close attention to the student protest movement in the U.S. against genocide in Gaza and how college campuses used law enforcement to crack down on the demonstrations.

That makes sense; Europe is a place decimated by the rise of fascist madmen less than a century ago that is facing its own “populist” anti-democracy déjà vu all over again. My sense is that people there, except for the usual (and dangerous) radical extremist contingent, want our nation to remain a beacon of democracy that might step in again if needed. While flawed, we did stand up at the end of World War II and liberate people hiding in caves and rubble to escape the wrath and guns of murderous bigots on the march.

As imperfect as we can be, we and our allies beat back fascism in 1945.

Shoulder Shrugging and Appeasement

In Germany, Uber drivers told us stories about Americans dropping food parcels to their families in East Berlin back in perilous times when they whiplashed from Nazi to Stalinist rule nearly overnight. That nation and that city went through some stuff—and many people there learned horrific lessons about being used and manipulated by a rising monocrat pushing bigotry buttons.

Over here, we’ve heard about how bad it got when fascism swept through Europe helped by shoulder-shrugging and appeasement by leaders who thought you could talk sense into an evil maniac and maybe share the spoils if you give him his way enough. That was folly; just ask France, ask the Dutch. People there lived through surprise bombings and sieges and executions of resistors in the streets or while trying to scale the wall to see their families—and then passed their stories down over generations. The pain and the determination to never go back to totalitarianism is evident in the magnificent graffiti and the historic markers around every corner in Berlin.

They, indeed, learned the hard way. The key now is to remember those lessons.

Germany teaches the realities of the Holocaust in schools in glaring detail in order to prevent it from ever happening again. Right here in Mississippi, white politicians whine about any efforts to teach our history of racist terror and rile up their constituents to ban books, vote away the rights of people they don’t want to understand, and take to the streets to dehumanize and humiliate members of our community. That’s not all that far from white supremacists filling the streets with torches just like Nazis did in Germany and neo-Nazis did in Charlottesville, Va.

If a slope has ever been slippery, it’s this one.

historic Wewelsburg Castle in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany’s Rhineland region
Reichsführer Henrich Himmler took over the historic Wewelsburg Castle in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany’s Rhineland region. He also created a nearby concentration camp of slave labor to turn it into his SS headquarters and executive Nazi hideaway. They performed executions on the site that American soldiers eventually liberated on April 2, 1945. Photo by Donna Ladd

Europeans understand better than Americans how quickly appeasement of those who try to pretend one group has a lock on violence—or who brand human beings and groups as “animals,” or join together to take over the U.S. Capitol building and kill people rather than protest in front of it—can turn into loading people onto trains to camps after stealing all their valuables. Time is a tool for despots, allowing them to steadily turn up the intensity of their rhetoric to wear down human morality and people’s resistance to horrific actions against people they’re told continually to despise and fear.

Those prone to evil will beat the same drum of hate until enough people join in. Then it gets uglier for “the other.” For the Nazis, that included Jewish people, Romani and other “itinerant” peoples, Black people, LGBTQ people (especially men), intellectuals, artists they didn’t like, “liberals,” journalists and, of course, members of the resistance.

Please don’t say such horrors can’t happen again. That’s a lie. It can and does, in various forms. And it is complacency toward fascism’s gradual buildup that allows it to flare back up.

A Train Whistle Approaching

In the Netherlands, the Frank family’s first stop after Nazis discovered them hiding in Amsterdam was Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp. Hitler’s goons created and distributed propaganda videos to show how well people were supposedly treated there to ease the populace into accepting evil and other nations into thinking things weren’t as bad as they were. Meantime, every time the Jewish inmates, who were used as slave labor, heard a train whistle approaching, terror overtook them as they had to crowd up and listen to Nazis (many of whom were fellow Dutch citizens) yelling out names of who had to board the train to the next stop on their journey to hell.

The destination was usually a full-blown concentration camp where they would either be worked to death—one of Reichsführer Henrich Himmler’s stated goals—or be murdered in various ways. Or, like young Anne and her mother, contract a disease spread by chiggers, lice and fleas like typhus that would kill them before the Allies could save them.

I’m still reeling from seeing New York Times editor Joe Kahn get defensive last week over the reality that media need to treat the survival of democracy as a top priority in election reporting this year. He even said that it is “not the top” priority because issues like immigration are polling higher. I’m confused about what polls have to do with anything when our most basic freedoms are on the line. He went on to indicate that prioritizing democracy as the top election issue is, to him, taking a partisan stance. (This is also, unfortunately, not altogether out of step with the New York Times’ history of prevaricating in the face of fascism.)

The terrifying logic seems to be that if only one side of a political race supports democracy, then media can’t treat it as the emergency it is because it might upset adherents of one party. You know, the one attacking democracy.

In April 2024, Mississippi Free Press editor and co-founder Donna Ladd looks at the tracks memorializing the trains that took Anne Frank and many other Dutch Jews to the Kamp Westerbork transit camp in The Netherlands. Trains also took thousands to concentration and extermination camps where they died. Photo by Todd Stauffer

No. Like University College London professor Brian Klaas wrote in response: “It is insane to me that someone in this role doesn’t understand that democracy is the superstructure for literally everything else. Democracy isn’t an issue that matters because of public opinion. It’s the issue that makes free public opinion possible.”

Londoners, by the way, remember Black Saturday like we recall 9/11.

Anyone who is trying to convince you that standing up for democracy, and against rising fascism in all its forms, is somehow a partisan act is either hopelessly naive, brainwashed or purposefully lying. Neither a free society or a free press can exist without democracy—and journalists can be right there with the resistors in the firing squads or sent to the camps when fascism gets its claws into a nation and decides to rid it of all detractors. (Just ask Vladimir Putin, who really wants fascism to divide and conquer America.)

It is our job to report on both officialdom and the resistance to efforts to destroy democracy without regard to political party. In our nation we still have the right to do that. At least for a few months.

The United States, American citizens and our media including The New York Times made many mistakes in the lead-up to the Nazis’ rapid rise to terror and unspeakable evil—but we got there in the end, liberating people whose leaders had supported and appreased madmen to their own destruction.

What is vital now is to use the lessons of that dark time in world history to ensure that we’re not fooled into complacency or dazzled by greed. Everything good and decent and free about the American way is on the line.

Correction: Donna Ladd originally typed Jeff Kahn rather than Joe Kahn in the above column. She apologizes for the error.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to azia@mississippifreepress.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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