Fake news, conspiracy fantasies and agitation against minorities make a particularly dangerous mix in the digital age. They follow an old pattern which works on the same principle as anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, cultural boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred.
A contribution by Christian Schüller. (Translated by Bettina Reiter)
“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life”, said Donald Trump at his first press conference as president of the United States of America. A reporter had asked him why there were many well-known anti-Semites among his campaign staffers. With his answer, Trump probably did not intend to convince journalists, nor American Jews, who traditionally vote democrats up to seventy percent. His message was actually aimed at his own voters. It can be translated like this: “Don’t allow others to criticize you for saying something anti-Semitic!”
Three years later, in front of a group of Jewish business people, Trump shamelessly reached into the pot of anti-Semitic clichés. Although he knew that the ladies and gentlemen didn’t like him, Trump claimed that they would have no choice but to choose HIM next time, since profit is the only thing that counts for them. Again, the message was not aimed at those present, but at his own followers. It read: Your president must be very brave, because he even dares to mess with Jews (subtext: even though they are so powerful). There was still another message contained in his words: In contrast to other Americans, Jews do not decide according to the wellbeing of our country, but only according to their material interests.
New name, old system
These two examples not only describe Donald Trump’s disturbing treatment of Jewish citizens. They also illustrate a phenomenon that has been called post truth for some years, or even a post-factual age. A mixture of resentment, insinuation and victim blaming, which comes often at the expense of minorities: immigrants, homosexuals, blacks and Jews. The successful Brexit campaign in the UK worked with similar means, and a number of right-wing nationalist politicians in Eastern and Western Europe keep using similar tactics. Political scientists agree that in post truth society identity and emotion increasingly replace facts. It is not only a matter of making false claims, but the line between opinion and facts gets increasingly blurred.
Fantasies are declared facts. Facts are dismissed as fantasies or at least devalued.
As disturbing as this counter-enlightenment trend may be, it is nothing new for Jews. For centuries, Anti-Semitism has worked in the same way, in both the East and the West. Sometimes openly, sometimes in a hidden way, depending on the political circumstances. The poison of Anti-Semitic slogans is often contained in what is not being said. In Russian newspapers, for example, a well-known phrase popped up with the corona pandemic. In a few words, it expresses a whole worldview: “Someone will benefit from that” (Это кому-то выгодно). Russian Jews immediately understand that it’s about them.
The phrase still bears the stamp of the Soviet Union when anti-Semitism was officially prohibited, while scapegoats were needed. Over time, the annoyances of everyday life in Russia may have changed, from the former supply shortages of the planned economy to the current Corona crisis – the saying, however, remains unchanged. Even if it is expressed in question form: “Who will benefit from that?”
Like in a Russian doll, several claims are nested within one another. To start with, it is assumed that one can’t call Jews by their name. One layer below lays the claim that this allegedly nameless group is not affected by the problems of “ordinary people”. At its core one can find the accusation that these nameless people actually caused the crisis. And on top of all that the assertion is made that the real facts will never be known, as this small group controls the media worldwide.
The weakness of the enlighteners
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used the same kind of rhetoric to portray the 2015 refugee movement as an intrigue against his country, spun by a single Jewish businessman. Orbán didn’t need to justify his claim. On the contrary, anyone who asked for evidence was considered an accomplice of the group that “wants to make Hungary look bad”.
Fantasies are declared facts. Facts are dismissed as fantasies or – where it is not possible to deny them entirely – at least devalued. In the case of the Holocaust, American right-wing ideologues have developed a new, effective “spin”, in the spirit of “post-factual” thinking: The crimes of the Nazis are no longer explicitly denied, but simply declared irrelevant. In this vein, conservative philosopher Greg Johnson argues in his book New Right vs. Old Right that historical facts, whatever they are, should not deter us. Subtext: Anyone who deals with the Holocaust is a chicken – being afraid of Jews.
American journalists who strive for objectivity are increasingly on the defensive – not least because they are themselves the target of public attacks. Editorial columns in the New York Times and Washington Post discuss whether it makes sense to give so much space to the President’s numerous lies and insults. But in case of doubt, what counts are circulation numbers.
Or let’s take the case of Austria: Liberal media have accompanied the rise of right-wing national politicians with a lot of critical attention and thereby contributed to their success. Even if the term “post-factual” was not yet in use, Jörg Haider, the star of the New Right skillfully mixed facts and opinions in order to provoke. Anti-Semitic allusions were always on the tip of his tongue.
Back in the 1980s, many liberal observers in Austria struggled to assess the supporters of populist politicians. Old patterns of left and right no longer seemed to fit. Why did this coalition of enraged citizens not care about facts? Were we witnessing the return of the repressed Nazi past? Or was it about something completely different?
Today, the Internet and social media provide us with a greater insight into the reactions and feelings of our contemporaries. Berlin linguist Monika Schwarz-Friesel, for example, examined anti-Semitic content on the Internet in a broad study. She found out that in recent years pejorative stereotypes about Jews had increased significantly not only among rightists and leftists, but also among those who consider themselves politically moderate, Muslim, educated or uneducated people. Language is becoming more and more radical. The researcher concludes that ideological boundaries are getting fluid and new alliances are emerging.
The mixing of facts and emotions plays a major role, especially on the Internet. Anger spreads particularly quickly on the net, says Internet expert Ingrid Brodnig. Postings that emotionalize tend to get more clicks and responses, and social media algorithms encourage content that generates a lot of resonance. This is how anger bubbles emerge. Anti-Semitic hate feelings seem to be largely independent of whether you know Jews. Negative feelings connect.
Identity: fact and fantasy
Our society is often portrayed as a kind of soccer field, where various teams fight each other – identity A against identity B. But doesn’t the term identity obscure more than it explains? In her book Ich und die Anderen (Me and the Others) the philosopher Isolde Charim writes that identity can no longer be viewed as a fixed fact, but rather as a fantasy. In a globalized and connected world, a “full identity” is not possible anymore. There is no longer a natural culture, no longer a natural belonging. And that means a drastic change.
For many, identity is nothing more than a wish and at the same time something that is attributed to other groups. Muslims are often rejected because they are assumed to have one hundred percent clear identities. But in fact, Muslims in the West have different and sometimes contradictory affiliations. The feeling of “wholeness” (identity) cannot be forced.
The mixing of facts and emotions plays a major role, especially on the Internet.
It is this conflict that makes Muslim youth in the West susceptible to conspiracy fantasies, despite all efforts of education. Dedicated teachers teach young migrants about the horrors of the Shoah, sparing no detail. This is intended to arouse empathy for the victims. But at the same time Jews are presented as a compact group, which, because of its strong cohesion, managed to survive thousands of years of persecution, finally being able to build a successful state. This heroic image makes it even more difficult for young Muslims to identify with Jews. It is often overlooked that Jews in particular are struggling with their sense of belonging, generation after generation.
The dilemmas of identity don’t spare the self-proclaimed heroes of the post-factual age and make them angry. Do Trump and Orbán feel persecuted by both Jews and Muslims because they sense their own weakness? After all, states and nations can no longer be controlled and directed, as their childish power fantasies would suggest. Their voters, who feel powerless themselves, wrongly take their leaders’ outbursts of anger for signs of strength. In this way, identity politics act like a Ponzi scheme in which there can ultimately only be losers.
Back to reality?
Is there a way back to political reality, away from the distortions of fake news and post-factual propaganda? Perhaps we should, in all modesty, start by better understanding the dividing lines of our world. According to Isolde Charim, they no longer run between different religions and cultures, but right through them.
Information about the author: Christian Schüller has been working for ORF since 1977 and has worked as a correspondent in the United States, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Iran and Turkey, among others. He is currently working on documentaries for the programs Am Schauplatz, Weltjournal and Kreuz und Quer. He is also deputy chairman of the Jewish Institute for Adult Education in Vienna.