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Neo-Totalitarianism and the Erasure of History

We are watching the era of the new iconoclasm take shape, no longer in the form of the destruction of religious icons, but in the demolition of historical memory via the toppling or desecration of statues and memorials across the West. While the removal of Confederate statues can be justified—though it should be accomplished by political consent rather than vandalism—it is clear that this new outburst of iconoclasm is in no way confined to the punishment of historical traitors.

Most notably in this regard, a statue of Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest anti-fascist of them all, was desecrated. Along with it, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled, despite his legacy as the man who crushed the Ku Klux Klan and fervently defended Reconstruction and human rights. What we are seeing, in other words, is not an attempt to force the past to answer to the present, but the emergence of something else.

Over 2,000 years ago, Plato described it in part when he said, “Bad men, when their parents or country have any defects, look on them with malignant joy, and find fault with them and expose and denounce them to others, under the idea that the rest of mankind will be less likely to take themselves to task and accuse them of neglect; and they blame their defects far more than they deserve, in order that the odium which is necessarily incurred by them may be increased.”

This, however, is clearly only a tactic in a larger struggle. In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer pointed toward the origins of this struggle in his description of “the militant man of words.” Such a man, wrote Hoffer, “prepares the group for the rise of a mass movement” by “discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions and detaching from them the allegiance of the people” and “undermining the convictions of the ‘better people’… so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it. They see no sense in dying for convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.”

For at least a generation, militant men and women of words have been laboring mightily to do precisely what Hoffer described. They have raised up a culture dedicated to the idea that our civilization is a monstrous aberration in human history, an industrial machine of dehumanization, the ultimate product of which is mass murder. It must be destroyed, they said, and replaced by something left vague but that is purged of sin and corruption, bereft of the inherent flaws of being human.

No one disputes that there is great sin in the history of our civilization. But historical sin demands a moral struggle. In their erasure of history, the new iconoclasts render that struggle obsolete, and in doing so leave us with nothing but power. And the idea that everything is power is, perhaps, the most essential and absolute principle of totalitarianism.

The indications, then, are ominous: Out of the new iconoclasm, a new totalitarianism is being born. And this neo-totalitarianism has learned from the past: It has its inquisitions, its auto-da-fes, its purges and cultural revolutions, reeducation and self-criticism sessions, and above all the ostracization and ultimate erasure of dissidents.

It is true that, for the moment, this is a soft totalitarianism—a totalitarianism suited for an age of social media spectacle. But the essence is the same: The penalty for even the weakest sin is damnation, and the sin always remains unknown. The goalposts are ever-moving, and the unspecified crimes admit of no redemption. Forgiveness has become a word voiced by no one.

Perhaps most important: if the sin is unnamed, then it is also absolute. Anything can be a sin and everything is a sin. And this leaves all of us vulnerable before the inquisitors, once the mob arbitrarily turns against us. And it can always turn against us, because it demands saints, and there are no saints. They have never existed and never will. What the neo-totalitarians cannot admit is that this is a good thing. Because in being more than human, a saint cannot be human, and as such, his example is useless to us.

In response to all this, there is probably only one way forward: People must begin to think again. We require a revolution of nuance. We should admit that historical injustice is real and must be addressed. That there are indeed some beliefs and opinions that are beyond the pale and must be shunned. But we must demand overwhelming evidence before doing so. And we must allow for the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

Above all, we must reject the demand that we accuse ourselves of crimes we did not commit, and reject the idea that there can be such a thing as universal crime or a crime that bears no name. We must assert that anyone has the right to establish a religion, but no right to compel others to recite the catechism.

If there is one great and absolute enemy of totalitarianism, it is truth. And to reach the truth, one must think. It is only here, in the solitude of our own minds, that we can begin the slow process of resistance to those who would impose their will on anyone who demands the right to choose the difficult struggle and not the easy bonfire of the vanities.

 

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. He holds degrees in Jewish and Israeli history from Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv Universities. You can follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash.

Comments

  1. Above all, we must reject the demand that we accuse ourselves of crimes we did not commit, and reject the idea that there can be such a thing as universal crime or a crime that bears no name. We must assert that anyone has the right to establish a religion, but no right to compel others to recite the catechism.

    If there is one great and absolute enemy of totalitarianism, it is truth.

    Well written.

    Moral Foundations Theory reminds us that the three moral foundations upon which the valuing of truth depends are absent in left-leaning people. Without loyalty, authority, or sanctity foundations, they will not merely forget history’s worst atrocities before repeating them.

    They will erase them.

  2. I am hoping the lunatics get the bright idea to occupy colleges campuses, and then find a way to shut them down. Shut them all down! We should be encouraging this. Doesn’t all of this come from the so-called “Humanities” departments at colleges? We should be defunding these places.

    BTW. How stupid are we to call these departments “Humanities”? They are anti-Humanity. What kind of savagery promotes tearing down public art works?

  3. Feel free to write and publish the true history. We’ll look forward to it. BTW, it is the same everywhere else. Singling out the West is not very intelligent.

  4. This kind of Jew-hatred is not welcome. Go away.

  5. Good timing - I recently read The True Believer. One of my highlighted passages:

    Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other’s throat. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers.

    I think my fellow moderate @RayAndrews will appreciate this quote.

  6. “While the removal of Confederate statues can be justified—“

    This is the nose under the camels tent. The point of confederate statues and monuments is not to venerate the confederacy or slavery but to document history. The war was a civil war and featured brother against brother. The position of the South was morally bankrupt but it is important to note the wrong side was a formidable adversary with talented generals and regiments of fierce fighters. This is not to celebrate the confederacy but to document and show that the cost of freedom was high and difficult. One may defeat his brother in an argument or just kick his tail but the combatants remain brothers who will hopefully reconcile. The point of the war was to show the South the error of its ways but mostly to preserve the union. Does one tear up the pictures of the brother he fought with? Does he remove his pictures from the photo album? Once one justifies the removal of statues because the objects were wrong, one sets the standard that only the perfect can be memorialized.

  7. “I assume you agree that the Germans were wrong to remove statues celebrating Hitler and other Nazis, who were “a formidable adversary with talented generals and regiments of fierce fighters.”

    I anticipated this argument. So much so that I almost addressed it in my original post. The war with the Nazis was not a civil war. It did not involve brother against brother or the preservation of a union. The point of defeating the Nazis was not to reunite a people. Air brushing confederates out of history is to airbrush out how difficult the battle was or how high the cost of freedom. I would suggest that when one has to cite Nazis to prove one’s point, the strength of the argument s generally lazy and weak. The argument is basically anyone who would defend that would also defend Nazis and everyone knows Nazis are evil. Slavery was evil too but it is important to document how and what it took to defeat it. If there was not a formidable documented enemy then the fight to end slavery must not have all that difficult. Why even bother to learn about it. History is not to be liked, it is to be studied and learned from…paraphrasing Col. Allen West

  8. Surely most of you have been seeing this Orwell quote recently, if you didn’t know it already:

    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” George Orwell, 1984

    Sadly, presciently, Orwell describes what we have happening now.

    The author of the article correctly points out that forgiveness is not in play in any of these discussions, and that the sin and payment for them is what is revered. I sense that that is because there is no concept of God that underpins the far left secular utopian witch hunt-ers out there. Without an understanding of forgiveness, grace and ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, there is no way to get a foothold in reconciliation. The ‘religious language’ of the radical left is eerily similar to the dogmatic conservative voices of the past that were the ‘uptight’ or ‘prudes’ or ‘judgmental’ or ‘pious’. The Christians (and Jews), and classic liberals that can live according to a ‘well being’ principle in life (either with or without God) are all getting along swimmingly now, and their disagreements have faded as they have had to look for allies to stand up to this insane mob.

    I also liked the author putting some steps forward out there. We have to collectively (I shudder to use that word, but it works) find ways to coalesce a resistance (‘resist’ is another word that has been hijacked, isn’t it?) amongst reasonable people to make our voices heard, so that the only din isn’t the one of chaos in the streets by our uber intellectual 20 somethings (history experts that they are) that are able to be out all night.

    With some backing from our law and order departments (Federal, State, and Police), we can find a way to ‘both/and’ this, and not get stuck in the ‘either/or’. What I mean is to be able to hold a paradox in your head. For many people, they can’t fathom a thought longer than 140 characters, but it is imperative to hold more than one item at once in your head to make sense of it. For instance, can we say BOTH that George Floyd in no way deserved to be killed by the police officer AND AT THE SAME TIME notice that he was in jail 9 times, had quite a few drugs in him, and had a violent gun related crime in his past? I am not sure that if he was white, and had that rap sheet, that his death would have moved the needle. Actually, I know it wouldn’t have, because things like that do happen to white men, and we never hear about them. But my point about paradox is that to be helpful, we have to have BOTH/AND solutions. For instance, can you hold BOTH points in your mind that there still IS some racism in the US AND it is much better than it was in say 1950? Statistics will tell you it has gotten better all the way through today, but even to pick 1950 proves the point. No one had to manufacture race hate crimes back then to get them noticed, but now they do (Bubba Wallace, Jesse Smolett, etc.) … What I mean is, we can work on making things better while admitting they ARE getting better. Climate activists fall into this trap too - is it so easy to find so many improvements in emissions and technology that is reducing climate effects, but you have to be able to hold that in your head at the same time that we can make it better. And that scrapping it all, tabula rasa, and starting over, with 8 billion on the planet, is going to be a little tough. With no GMO foods, I’m pretty sure there isn’t enough land on the planet to farm…

    I rambled, and got off track from my original post point, but hopefully it was cohesive enough for some of you…

  9. Some fine arguments are being made in this thread, though the best ones remain omitted:

    1. The process is occurring lawlessly.
    2. There was never any reason to believe that the ideology behind removing Confederate statues would stop there. The plainly stated goal is to destroy everything. It’s a motte-and-bailey argument, with Confederates as the motte.
  10. Well, the other left out argument is that after the mob gets bored with killing effigies of people, it kills actual people. “Literally” to use the vernacular of the idiots correctly. But, anyway, identifying their violent actions as dangerous doesn’t take much intellectual strain. PerryMason quoted Orwell, the passage with the exceptionally pointed term “endless present”. These violent little pricks live in the “now”. Let’s not commit the same folly. Think not of what is happening, but what must happen to stop it. Anything else is a self-soothing circle jerk.

  11. We need to formulate an overarching meta-narrative which contradicts the Leftist assertion that institutional or structural racism is responsible for all racial disparity, and we need to build it upon the foundation of truth- rather than the half-baked theories and suppositions that the Left uses. The argument also has to be one that the general public will be amenable to, so certain option are closed.

    To me, a 21st century narrative of fathers in the community counteracting the baleful influence of gang grooming and moderating teenage male peer groups, has to be the most compelling argument. Where the conservative movement in the past went wrong, was that it singled out single mothers for moral condemnation and should have instead focused on the poor teenage boys who inevitably went off the rails without older admirable males to guide them into manhood.

    From the plains of Africa to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, we know that every culture which survived the maelstrom of history had a rites of passage ceremony which symbolically marked the transition from boy to man. Only it wasn’t just symbolic. In a very real sense, it all marked the boundary between boys living under the supervision of women to being supervised and socialised by older men.

    The biggest mistake that feminism ever made was to think that women could raise boys without men, or that these boys might be better than those who had gone before. Because whatever mild chauvinism that might have previously been passed from fathers to sons, it is infinitely preferable to what happens in the absence of male supervision. Forget what you’ve heard about prisons, dropping out of high school and all the other stats which give boys without fathers no chance at all. Twice as likely to rape a woman and eight times as likely to kill a man.

    There is a core to culture. It is the stories we tell, our food and music. But over time a culture can appropriate successful habits or technologies which are incredibly conducive to the building of human capital, and overall healthier life outcomes. It’s why the poorest Chinese British immigrant passes 5 or more GCSE’s at 16, 78% of the time, and the wealthiest passes the same, 81% of the time. There is almost no divergence by socio-economic background. They are also the culture which has managed to retain the highest percentage of active participating fathers, set against the trend of the modern age.

    Fathers acting collectively must somehow moderate teenage and adolescent male peer groups. It is the only underlying factor that makes any sense. Why else would football hooliganism only emerge at exactly the same moment in history, when older men first started absenting themselves from football stands in favour of trips to the DIY centre, and the garden centre with their wives.

    Some studies have shown that for every 1% by which fathers in a neighbourhood decline, juvenile violence rises by 3%. Dr Raj Chetty’s work shows that the proportion of fathers in a community is incredibly important to social mobility- it’s one of the primary factors. The consequences of an absence of fathers are nowhere near as dire for girls as for boys, but girls are still more likely to attempt suicide or become homeless without fathers.

    A factor in poor cognitive development and aberrant behaviour in the teen years and later in life is sexual and domestic violence in the home, but what we almost never hear is that if you are a single mother or the child of a single mother, you are far, far more likely to experience sexual or domestic violence. Before the British Government stopped collecting data, and then censored that data out of existence because it was ‘discriminatory’, their statistics showed that a single mother and her children were 33 times as likely to experience sexual or domestic violence, than a married woman and her children.

    But the most astounding piece of data on social mobility is that Black women actually perform slight better in terms of social mobility, than white women. They still pay a penalty, and are generally paid 11% less than White women, but this is because their start position in life is usually lower down the socio-economic spectrum to begin with, because they generally come from single income households. By contrast a Black boy raised in a household with an income of $120K a year, performs at a level commensurate with a White household with $35K a year. These are the consequences of fathers absent from the home and the community.

    There are schools which overcome the social factors inherent to poor, multi-ethnic, high crime communities, bereft of fathers. But in many ways, there individual successes are predicated on a surrogacy of masculine ethics, at least in part. They insist upon parental involvement in the educational process, which is neither the exclusive domain of the masculine or the feminine. But what is a deeply embedded in masculine training stretching back to the dawn of time is a structured system of strict low-level discipline, combined with positive feedback for a job well done. It’s how we instinctively train ourselves.

    It’s the positive feedback that is crucial. Because to kids who have often been shouted and screamed at their entire lives by adults, they become inured to the punitive approach. But for boys in particular, give them the means to achieve praise and the esteem of their peers, and those status-seeking male hormones kick-in and the lights go on. Because they crave status, it’s why when deprived of positive male role models they often seek out less savoury ones in the form of older male peer groups, intent on gang grooming.

    However proactive policing might be it is, by its very nature, reactive on the ground, a response to crime, and violent crime in particular. 50% of all violent crime in America is committed in 2% of districts, and whatever the demographics of those districts, they are always critically low on responsible fathers- and unfortunately the only way to keep violent crime down in these areas is for police to actively police them. In the past, this approach has perhaps been too indiscriminate and heavy handed, unfairly targeting the innocent for scrutiny along with the guilty. This is why it so important for Police Officers to act upon reasonable suspicion that goes beyond a simple race and age profile. Because without the power to use a more observation-based form of proactive policing, homicides skyrocket with local crimes far in excess of citywide or national averages

    Above all, these crime figures unfairly tarnish the vast bulk of young African American males, 70% of whom have grown up in middle class black neighbourhoods, or for those who in more benign poorer settings. It’s a very localised problem which in effect involves the wholesale substitution of healthy male role models with child groomers. As a boy grows up in life, it is perhaps natural for him to look at the men around him with their varied professions, zero in on a man who seems like an older self and imagine himself in that role. In the absence of positive male role models willing to intervene to moderate peer group behaviour, the path on which these young men find themselves can incredibly destructive. Twice as likely to rape a woman and eight times as likely to kill a man.

    Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men under 44. Policing can only mitigate it. The only thing that can cure it is more fathers in the community, and the Left will never admit it.

  12. The suggestion that the black community suffers because of their own terrible decisions only attracts accusations of racism. It doesn’t matter how truthful or compassionate you are in your content and delivery. The generation raised on victim mentality has come of age and they are on a rampage.

    High on their own sense of moral superiority and purposefully miseducated on history, they think they’re fighting Nazis when they are almost indistinguishable from Nazis. From their brownshirt tactics to their itch for state control, from their Jew hatred to their groupthink, they are wannabe authoritarians of the worst kind. They are not responsible for their problems.

  13. There is a good case for taking down Confederate statues. There is also a good case for leaving them where they are. What is important is the process for deciding.

    The purpose of democracy is not what we do but how we do it. The by-product of public debate is the appreciating of opinions and changing of minds.

    This is why forcing the issue by violence should be treated harshly, as should the cowardice of leaders who do nothing in the face of chaos.

  14. Blast Stone Mountain smooth. Take down every confederate statue and monument. At Vicksburg, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam and other battlefields only have depictions of Union generals and soldiers. Then tell me what has been proven. What great wrong has been righted? Tell me how much safer and better off all are now that evil scary statues have been defaced and removed. Explain to me how stronger and better off the country and its people are being fearful and triggered by statues of people long since dead. Tell me who is perfect enough be memorialized by a statue. Explain away and cite the benefits of vandalism and mob rule. Then after that take a sledge hammer and head to Rome for the demolition of all those statues of slave owning Roman emperors. Celebrate the freedom and understanding that comes from censoring history.

    Why fear telling the whole story? Nothing is gained from editing or whitewashing history. Does that smug sense of self satisfaction every time a confederate statue is removed justify depriving future generations from gazing upon those monuments and forming their own thoughts and opinions? So deface and destroy statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, burn Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn ban Gone with the Wind in the name of self righteousness. Revel in self satisfaction and pretend vandalism is actually virtuous and constructive. Feign bravery on par with the men who actually died on civil war battle fields defending freedom. Perhaps one day in the future there can be a self righteous tour where the guide can proclaim, “here once stood a statue of Robert E. Lee until the self righteous vandals removed it and over here was once…”

    Kurt, I know from your post you are a reasonable person as well as an educator. Wouldn’t it be better to stand before a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, say to younger generations eager to learn “This man was an excellent battle tactician and a reprehensible human being. He epitomized what the Union was fighting against. We are all better of that he and his ilk were defeated. This statue was shamefully erected during segregation. It stands as a monument to our sometimes unpleasant and difficult past. This statue stands today for you students to reflect upon that history”?

  15. One things to do to protect statues:

    …apart from tearing down a statue of, say, MLK or Frederick Douglass. You can be 100% certain that the moment that happens, the media will suddenly declared it is totally wrong to erase history.

    They are so predictable.

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