On July 28, a Minnesota couple wore facemasks emblazoned with swastikas while shopping in a Walmart. Another shopper, Raphaela Mueller, whose great-grandmother had risked her life during World War II as a member of the German Resistance, was aghast. Ms. Mueller and her dismayed boyfriend, Benjamin Ruesch, confronted the other couple. While Mueller shot video, Ruesch entreated with the couple to remove the offending masks. Here are CNN's and The Washington Post's reports.
Recently, a very dear friend whom I've known since middle school at the United Nations International School and who lives in the United Kingdom, mentioned Raul Hilberg's 1993 book, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. So I sent her a link to the Minnesota swastika story. Here's her response:
"This is a chilling story on so many levels. For me the very scariest element of it was this line, 'She said that other shoppers mostly kept their head down and tried to ignore the situation.' That is how perpetrators get away with it. The impulse (for whatever reason) to 'keep your head down' when evil is perpetrated allows racism, hatred, and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide to occur.
"That is where education must begin. Universally. To recognize when wrong is occurring to somebody else, not just when one's own private interests are threatened. To recognize evil. To recognize that walking by is absolutely complicit in the evil, to effectively become a perpetrator. I believe this very deeply.
"People must be equipped to learn how to address situations during which evil is perpetrated. It is very much more complicated than just being recklessly willing to be brave and stand up to evil. Although I am very glad this woman did––for her own sake.
"One key, critical, fundamental element is learning how to convey to the victim that he (or so very often she) is seen, recognized, and supported. Safely. For both parties. And, based on the situation, to provide that support either at the moment of the evil being done or to make sure to reach out to the victim at a moment of safety after the crisis has passed and really, really support then.
"This might end up in a time-consuming commitment. But to truly help means making that commitment. The alternative is allowing hatred, racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide––as if it is too inconvenient to try to stop.
"The biggest problem is the tendency to feel defeated, hopeless and exhausted, which comes out as self-indulgent, hedonistic laziness instead of the enraged righteous campaigning that might turn tides.
"Instead of allowing the bastards to keep winning.
"I just hope that it isn't necessary to be a survivor of a genocide to understand all this."
I'm with her all the way.
In the swastika mask incident, the victim, Mueller, spoke out for herself and her companion told the offending couple that their behavior was un-American. "We literally had a war about this," he said. Another customer supported Mueller and Ruesch, telling the woman, "We don't want you in our neighborhood." Someone called the police and the couple was served with trespass notices. Walmart did not merely stand by either; instead the retailer banished the swastika mask-wearers for one year. But the question remains whether the store's solution is enforceable. What will happen if those perpetrators reappear?
The perpetrators' defiant and incoherent responses also prompt another broader concern. The pair's first response was lewd gestures. Attempting to clarify her position, the woman then said, "I'm trying to tell people what's going to happen in America." The man chimed in, "We're living under a socialist state." The woman continued, "If you vote for Biden, you're going to be living in Nazi Germany. That's what it's going to be like." She reiterated that "socialism is going to happen here in America." She also insisted she is not a Nazi.
Here we see the results of the chaos Trump unleashes. People absorb his rants at rallies, his weird, divisive tweets, and distortions. They think that those who care about others less fortunate than themselves are losers and sissies. Empathy and tolerance are anathema. People like that perpetrator couple in Walmart are ignorant of the history of WWII, don't understand the distinction between socialism and fascism, and parrot inconsistencies. Moreover, they are unreachable. Communicating with them through logic seems unfathomably daunting, if not impossible. Socialist Nazis will take over America? Right, because they favor the Affordable Care Act and they don't want secret police? Do people like the swastika-maskers think sending armed and armored secret police in full battle dress to our cities is not fascistic? Do they think it is fair to financially squeeze the Postal Service so that voting by mail becomes unreliable? Trying to force people to the polls in hopes that they will opt out because they're afraid they'll catch COVID? Disenfranchising fellow Americans or making them risk lives is just fine?
It is stunning that people who may have attended at least middle school cannot figure out who has their back and who does not, who is manipulating them for political ends, and who is not.
But Professor Jason Stanley of Yale University is very clear about the source of this confusion. In his book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018), Stanley explains that fascist politicians "rewrite the population's shared understanding of reality by twisting the language of ideals through propaganda and promoting anti-intellectualism, attacking universities and educational systems that might challenge their ideas. Eventually, with these techniques, fascist politics creates a state of unreality, in which conspiracy theories and fake news replace reasoned debate."
Stanley says fascist politics undermines public discourse by attacking and devaluing education, expertise, and language. Intelligent debate is impossible, he says, without an education, without different perspectives, a respect for expertise when your own knowledge is insufficient, and the vocabulary to precisely describe reality.
With definitions blurred or bastardized for political purposes, can we ever again have a meaningful dialog? What kind of society are we becoming if we do not watch over those less fortunate than ourselves? If people of all faiths, and none, are unable to communicate and are intolerant of one another, I want to know how our species is superior to scorpions. Are we one with our brethren, or are we not? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and become perpetrators, victims and bystanders, or not?