There is a fundamental difference between understanding fear, and stoking it for political motives, writes Fergus Finlay
“The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”
That’s a comment made during the Berlin Olympics of 1936, perhaps one of the most hypocritical public utterances ever heard. The speaker was Adolf Hitler, and it was around this time 80 years ago that he said it.
Hitler saw the Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to show the world what the master race could do, but he also went to great lengths to ensure that the Games happened. Doorways throughout Berlin had been festooned with signs saying “Jews not welcome here” for months before the Games, but they were all removed on Hitler’s instructions.
The anti-Semitism that was a core characteristic of Nazism, and that was to result in ever increasing oppression throughout the rest of the decade, leading to the “final solution” and the extermination of six million people, was hidden from the world for the fortnight of the Games.
And of course, by and large, the world was happy not to see it. There had been some debate about the possibility of a boycott, among people who knew only too well what Hitler stood for, but they were shouted down by the “politics has no place in sport” brigade. So the world, if it didn’t flirt with fascism then, humoured it and gave it the space to flourish.
Are we doing it again?
The best guess anyone can make right now is that the remain side will win a tight referendum on Thursday, and that Hillary Clinton will beat Donald Trump to the US Presidency. In both cases though, that will happen — if it happens — after campaigns that have been filled with hate.
The worst feature of that hate is that it has been, and is being deliberately, stoked.
Just have a look on-line, if you can, at the poster Nigel Farage unveiled as part of his campaign to encourage Britain to vote to leave the EU. A “horde” of refugees swarming over a border is presented as an imminent threat to Britain.
The EU has failed us all. pic.twitter.com/Lb7txUghar— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) June 16, 2016
Every single person in that “horde” is a young man, every single one of them has a different skin colour, every single one of them looks to be in a hurry. I don’t know whether the poster is real or touched up — it certainly looks as if they examined a lot of photographs before finding one that didn’t feature women, or children, or oppression, or fear.
You look at the poster and you’re instantly reminded of the signs hung up all over Germany in the run-up to the Berlin Olympics. Only of course the message is “immigrants not welcome here”. It’s a poster that is clearly, and transparently, designed to stoke fear and encourage hatred.
Was it a coincidence that on the day the poster was launched, a brave young Labour MP, a life-long supporter of compassionate approaches to immigration, was murdered in broad daylight by a deranged supporter of the xenophobic nationalism spouted by Farage? Of course it wasn’t.
Farage didn’t, and doesn’t, advocate crimes against politicians. But there are more than enough lessons in history to know that the forces that can be unleashed in the name of extremism are impossible to control. Black and white solutions to complex problems — especially the kind of solutions that are built around blaming one class or one ethnic group for every problem — work best when they pick a vulnerable target. And then, of course, they disavow any responsibility. Farage spent most of this past weekend describing himself, and no-one else, as a victim of hate politics.
Even if tactics like that fail in the UK referendum, as I hope they do, exactly the same messages are at the heart of Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic and dangerous campaign in America. Trump is running a campaign that might have been planned and prepared for him by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s director of propaganda.
It was Goebbels who referred to what he described as the true principle that “in the big lie, there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily”. (He said it as part of a theory about a Jewish conspiracy, but he practiced it assiduously.)
I have yet to see Donald Trump say anything in public that isn’t designed to stoke fear and hatred. It’s being suggested in the commentary on US politics that he reached his lowest point just before the Orlando massacre, when he accused a judge of being biased against him on ethnic grounds. But then after Orlando he suggested that President Obama was hiding his real support for the Muslim terrorists who claimed credit for that horrific onslaught. Over the weekend he was advocating racial profiling as a counter-terrorism measure.
American must now get very tough, very smart and very vigilant. We cannot admit people into our country without extraordinary screening.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2016
Day by day, he is stirring cauldrons that he can’t control. I suspect he knows that and doesn’t care. He’s on one of the great ego trips in political history, and he simply doesn’t seem to care what damage he does.
The other night I watched, George Hook, whom I’ve come to know and like over the years, say on television that if he had a vote in the US election, he’d vote for Donald Trump. Apparently because Trump alone understands the fear that exists in America right now about immigration. He said that President Obama was a coward because he had refused to use the terms “radical Islam” in the context of the Orlando massacre.
I watched it, and I found it really hard to believe it from someone for whom I have a lot of personal respect. There is a fundamental difference between understanding fear, and stoking it for political motives. Barack Obama understands that difference, and it’s the reason he is so careful about applying easy all-encompassing labels. He knows, I believe, how easy it is to surrender to hate, and how important it is to fight hate.
It’s ever-present, of course, on social media. Facebook and Twitter are wonderful and essential tools of communication. But I’ve also seen all too often the way they too are used to spread hate. In Ireland, it seems to be the case that women politicians in particular are treated in the most vile way by the usually anonymous souls that populate the dark side of social media.
All too often, their attacks look orchestrated — pretending to be related to an issue of current importance, but actually an excuse for poisonous abuse. Nearly always, this abuse and hatred comes from what has come to be known in Ireland as the “hard left”. The ideology may describe itself as left-wing, but the tactics are irredeemably fascist.
Right now, if Trump and Brexit lose, I suspect it will be because human decency in the end has recoiled from hate. But that’s not enough. The entire world has to wake up and fight back against the politics of hate and fear. Otherwise, 80 years ago will seem like yesterday – and maybe tomorrow.
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