Sebastian Haffner was a law student in Berlin when the brownshirts evicted the Jews from the law library. He said that the failure of educated Germans to deal with Adolf Hitler led to a kind of national nervous breakdown. He summed it up as follows.
The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding.’ This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity, to be drawn on in the hour of trial….At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and completely collapsed, and suffered a nervous breakdown. The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line. No Frederick the Great was needed. Not even Hitler had to intervene. All that was required was a few Amstgerichstrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law.
When Saudi funded terrorists successfully attacked the twin towers in New York, the Americans suffered a loss of nerve, a failure of mettle. They harped on the need for patriotism and they passed a law called the Patriot Act. Why should one kind of crime lead to calls for patriotism, but not others?
Some terrorists do want to undermine government, and in that sense they resemble those guilty of the crime of treason – people who are called traitors. If you feared that a fifth column may be at work and ready to aid an invading power, you might then appeal to patriotism. You might even invoke terror yourself in order to meet the threat and to defend the motherland. This was precisely the course taken by the French government after 1789 when they declared, for good reason, that la patrie est en dangère.
But there is nothing like that threat facing people in Britain, the U S or Australia from I S or other manifestations of terror linked to Islam. Nor does the present threat level appear to exceed that faced by Britain from terror linked to Ireland in the last third of the last century. In none of those cases could it be said that the nation’s very existence was in peril. Why then do some people feel the need to invoke patriotism for this kind of crime and not for others?
There is nothing new about terrorism. The bible and the Koran are splattered with it. Homer had the man-killing Achilles claim that he was the most terrifying man alive. Ancient Athens thought nothing of putting a whole town to the sword for not paying protection money. Sparta was worse. One Roman general injected discipline by killing every tenth soldier in his army. (Hence we have the word ‘decimate’.) Rome responded to a slave revolt by crucifying 6000 of them on the Appian Way. Before at least one crusade, the crusaders got their arm in for the slaughter of Muslims by slaughtering thousands of Jews on their way to the Holy Land. The nations of the U S, France, Ireland and Israel were all conceived and born amid acts of terrorism.
If you look up ‘terrorist’ in the OED, you will find that it ‘applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution.’ Robespierre is not greatly loved now, but there is still a Robespierre Society in France devoted to the archetypal terrorist. Whether you regard people like George Washington or Nelson Mandela as terrorists depends mainly on what side wins. As one American rebel mordantly remarked, they would either stick together or they would hang separately. For that matter, more than a few blackfellas would think that the white occupation of Australia was only effected by terrorism, and brutally effective terrorism at that.
The Patriot Act was said to be about ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’. That kind of silly word game of itself suggests a loss of nerve. Outside of the U S, patriotism has not had a good press since Dr Johnson described it as the last refuge of the scoundrel, a proposition exemplified in a case we will come to, and E M Forster declared that if he had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the courage to choose the latter.
Outside the U S, the word patriotism has become a dirty word since it was perverted by the scourge of Senator McCarthy. For similar reasons, phrases like ‘Un-American’ die on our lips.
At the beginning of what we call the Cold War, many Americans felt that communism posed a threat that might be unhelpfully characterised as ‘existential’ (a word that should be left to followers of Jean Paul Sartre). Some thought that this threat permitted appeals to patriotism. They relied on high minded informers like Ronald Reagan to produce scapegoats by dobbing in their mates. (Has any culture ever smiled on informers?)
Senator McCarthy – a vulgar, loud mouthed and vicious drunk – used a government committee to conduct an inquisition. The inquisition was, like its European religious ancestors, based on fear and smear. The fear was twofold – there was the popular fear of communism, and there was the fear felt by the targets of the inquisition. (On one his trips to the Inquisition, Galileo copped this bell-ringer straight off: ‘Why do you think that you are here?’) The smear consisted of labelling all communists as the same, and by saying that people were guilty merely if they were suspected of being communists. In this, they reverted to type, and the infamous French Law of Suspects, that enabled Robespierre to lift the death rate sharply. (On one occasion, Robespierre said ‘Look about you and share my fear.’ He was only brought down when those who were left realised it was just of matter of time until it was their turn. One survivor bustled about saying ‘I hear he has a list – and that your name is on it.’)
The ultimate crime of McCarthy, as it is in all such inquisitions, lay in seeking to induce or compel witnesses to repeat the crime of Judas – not by holding out thirty pieces of silver, but by abusing the power of government.
We can I think see precisely these techniques being applied to Muslims in Australia by nasty people like Pauline Hanson, Alan Jones, Cory Bernardi, Andrew Bolt and other parts of the press (but not the decent press). It may therefore be as well to reflect on why McCarthyism is such a dirty word, a word that casts at least as great a stain on the U S as the Salem witch-hunts (a word that the current U S President is greatly attracted to). Indeed, it might be helpful if some scholar were to analyse the two together – with particular reference to the influence of perverted religion on each. (The same scholar might consider the ways that the crusades involved a perversion of religion. He or she may also want to look at whether religion was involved or invoked on either side of the terrorist atrocities of the IRA.)
Ike – President Eisenhower – loathed McCarthy, who said that his mission was ‘making certain that every government employee is a loyal American.’ Ike said:
We have opposed the confusing of loyalty with conformity, and all misguided attempts to convert freedom into a privilege licensed by censors…We must, even in our zeal to defeat the enemies of freedom, never betray ourselves into seizing their weapons to make our own defence…[America] is too strong ever to acknowledge fear and too wise ever to fear knowledge….This is the kind of America – and the kind of Republican Party – in which I believe.
As warriors go, Ike’s credentials are hard to beat. Later he said of a critic:
The writer labors under the false but prevalent notion that bullying and leadership are synonymous; that desk-pounding is more effective than is persistent adherence to a purpose and winning to that purpose sufficient support for its achievement….As for McCarthy, only a short-sighted or completely inexperienced individual would urge the use of the office of the Presidency to give an opponent the publicity he so avidly desires.
(In the name of heaven, what would Ike have said about the ‘short-sighted or completely inexperienced individual’ in the White House now?)
Harry Truman was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He condemned the government for ‘yielding to hysteria rather than resisting it’ and rounded on ‘fake crusaders who dig up and distort records of the past to distract the attention of the people from political failures of the present.’ Harry Truman was a model president.
Then four Puerto Rican terrorist gun-men opened fire in Congress and shot and wounded five congressmen. Terrorism had hit home on the hill. Ike responded by saying that ‘we are defeating ourselves by [using] methods that do not conform to the American sense of justice and fair play.’
Ed Murrow then gave a nationally televised address.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who refused to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent….We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
Ike gave an impromptu speech from rough notes – ‘Just let me get up and talk to the people’ – in which he referred to ‘the fear that we will use intemperate investigative methods, particularly through congressional committees, to combat communistic penetration.’ Then Ike attacked the press that he thought had a guilty conscience for having built McCarthy up. (A preview of Trump.) He said they ‘put a premium upon clichés and slogans’. Boy, could he see them now!
We incline to persuade with an attractive label; or to damn with a contemptuous tag. But catchwords are not information. And most certainly , sound popular judgments cannot be based upon them….Freedom of expression is not merely a right, its constructive use is a stern duty….Along with patriotism – understanding, comprehension, determination are the qualities we now need. Without them, we cannot win. With them, we cannot fail.
McCarthy was finally brought undone in a confrontation with a Boston attorney called Joe Welch. It was a stand-off that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck whenever I watch it. Welch was counsel for the U S army – which was another target of McCarthy. Welch told a young man named Fisher on his staff that he should not take part in the case because when younger he had belonged to a suspect group. McCarthy dredged this past up as a smear. Welch responded in terms that do eternal honour to the profession of the law and which earned him a long ovation.
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us……Little did I dream that you would be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad….. I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were within my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me……Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?….Mr McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further…I will not ask Mr Cohn any more questions. You, Mr Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.
There is much for us to heed from the cancer of McCarthyism. If we are being attacked by people who want us to change our laws and customs, then it makes no sense for us to respond by doing just that – whether under the label of patriotism, or at all. If we respond to terrorism by giving up rights that preserve our freedom, are we not just giving in to the terrorists and completing their work for them?
Recent events in Holland, France and Germany suggest that Europe is holding the line. That cannot be said for Australia, the U S or the U K. Here, the two major parties are so much on the nose that either in government will be elected by about one third of the voters and then face people elected by the other two thirds of the voters. And we have learned from the U S the art of unprincipled opposition. The nation looks to be about as ungovernable as France was until recently. We have a government that is without principle or leader facing an opposition that is at least as deficient in both – and the people know it.
In the U S and the U K, people who look unfit for any kind of office have attracted large numbers of votes from voters who are as impervious to reality as they are indifferent to truth. These people are not just disaffected with politics – they are deeply aggrieved that the whole world is unfair to them – and sensible people should understand their grievance.
And the malaise in all three nations is now such that politicians in senior positions and the lesser press feel no compunction about attacking judges and doing so in ways that are as spiteful as they are groundless. Most of these people making these attacks should know better – except for Donald Trump, who has no sense of decency at all, and Peter Dutton, who may well be the most frankly vicious minister of the Crown that this nation has ever produced.
The inference appears to me to be plain that at least some of these people attacking the judges are seeking to undermine public trust in that organ of government called the judiciary. Having debauched their own currency, it is not hard for them to seek to spread that form of cancer around. That being so, it may not be all that simple to articulate the moral difference between these dissolute rock throwers and common garden terrorists.
We are looking at an illness, a cancer, across our public life. But when we look at the events in the U S and the U K, and the hopeless and unworkable condition of our Commonwealth Parliament, then it is clear that not just historians but all of us will now gaze with different eyes on the irresistible rise and success of evil people like Mussolini and Hitler. Only a glib idiot would say that it couldn’t happen here.
We are not just speaking of a failure of nerve. We are contemplating the erosion of that ‘solid inner kernel’ so finely drawn by Sebastian Haffner. It is this kernel that has prevented us from descending to the primeval slime experienced by so many nations that have been exposed to violent revolution because they failed to react decently to change.
It took the English and their descendants more than eight hundred years to develop the rule of law and the Westminster system. They are the institutions that underlie our rights and freedoms – our whole way of life. We can lose it all in a fraction of that time – especially if we insist on parroting nonsense about patriotism, and especially if we do that, as I think that we do, in order to discriminate against those of a faith different to that which our elected leaders affect to pray to on each day that they sit together to lay down our laws.
Poet of the month: Homer’s Iliad
‘Ye kings and warriors! may your vows be crown’d,
And Troy’s proud walls lie level with the ground.
May Jove restore you when your toils are o’er
Safe to the pleasures of your native shore.
But, oh! relieve a wretched parent’s pain,
And give Chryseis to these arms again;
If mercy fail, yet let my presents move,
And dread avenging Phoebus, son of Jove.’