In the Garden of Beasts

19th October 2021

Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Year

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. We have read many books over the years about the rise and fall of the Third Reich (including Shirer’s definitive classic by that name).  But In the Garden of the Beasts is one of the best we’ve ever read in describing the gradual unfolding of the evil that was Hitler and his loathsome cronies.  The book follows William Dodd, the unlikely, bottom-of-the-barrel pick as Ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his daughter, Martha Dodd, who slept her way through the top of Berlin’s high society as she merrily embraced Nazism.  But as the Dodds grew more familiar with Germany and the Nazis, they began to appreciate the true horrors of the regime. Martha would become a spy for the communists—only late in life realizing that she had been the dupe of each evil faction.  Larsen’s descriptions are stunningly apropos of the era—and resonate today: 

“…Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep into the fabric of daily life. It had occurred quietly and largely out of easy view. At its core was a government campaign called Gleichschaltung—meaning “Coordination”—to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes. 

 “‘Coordination’ occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by specific laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or ‘self-coordination.’ Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were their friends, clients, patients, and customers have become different in ways hard to discern. Gerda Laufer, a socialist, wrote that she felt ‘deeply shaken that people whom one regarded as friends, who were known for a long time, from one hour to the next transformed themselves.’ Neighbors turned surly; petty jealousies flared into denunciations made to the SA—the Storm Troopers—or to the newly founded…Gestapo…

This is an absolutely remarkable book of history—we cannot recommend it more highly. 

We Got Here Because of Cowardice. We Get Out With Courage

Bari Weiss’s extraordinary essay about today’s Woke America, with its enormous impact on education, resonates with the eerie acquiescence of many Germans of the 1930s to the rapid encroachment on their personal liberties by Nazism. As Weiss notes: “If you have ever tried to build something, even something small, you know how hard it is. It takes time. It takes tremendous effort. But tearing things down? That’s quick work. 

“The Woke Revolution has been exceptionally effective. It has successfully captured the most important sense-making institutions of American life: our newspapers. Our magazines. Our Hollywood studios. Our publishing houses. Many of our tech companies. And, increasingly, corporate America. 

“Just as in China under Chairman Mao, the seeds of our own cultural revolution can be traced to the academy, the first of our institutions to be overtaken by it. And our schools—public, private, parochial—are increasingly the recruiting grounds for this ideological army. Most important: In this revolution, skeptics of any part of this radical ideology are recast as heretics. Those who do not abide by every single aspect of its creed are tarnished as bigots, subjected to boycotts and their work to political litmus tests. The Enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism. 

“What we call ‘cancel culture’ is really the justice system of this revolution. And the goal of the cancellations is not merely to punish the person being cancelled. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next. 

“It has worked. A recent CATO study found that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to voice their true views. Nearly a quarter of American academics endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. And nearly 70 percent of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something that students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey.

“…As Douglas Murray has put it: ‘The problem is not that the sacrificial victim is selected. The problem is that the people who destroy his reputation are permitted to do so by the complicity, silence and slinking away of everybody else.’

“Each surely thought: These protestors have some merit! This institution, this university, this school, hasn’t lived up to all of its principles at all times! We have been racist! We have been sexist! We haven’t always been enlightened! I’ll give a bit and we’ll find a way to compromise. This turned out to be as naive as Robespierre thinking that he could avoid the guillotine. 

“…Every day I hear from people who are living in fear in the freest society humankind has ever known. Dissidents in a democracy, practicing doublespeak. That is what is happening right now. What happens five, 10, 20 years from now if we don’t speak up and defend the ideas that have made all of our lives possible?

“Liberty. Equality. Freedom. Dignity. These are ideas worth fighting for.”

Here is Bari describing the situation to CNN’s Brian Stelter. This tweet from Lyndsey Fifield of the Daily Signal observes the irony of Stelter’s “insistence that nobody is stopping people from speaking freely when he’s talking to a woman who lost her job because she spoke freely is pretty galling.”

FIRE on behalf of Free Speech

There has been a surge of alumni activism on behalf of free speech this week. This Wall Street Journal article “Alumni Unite For Freedom Of Speech: Many left-of-center professors now realize that they too can be brutally canceled by the mob” highlighted the launch of the new Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA), which unites free speech alumni groups at 5 colleges (so far) to advocate for free thought and expression on campuses. Founding members have proudly declared that they will defend the free speech of Democrats, Republicans, left, right, or whoever is speaking.

If you’re interested in free speech at your alma mater — and especially if you might be interested in participating in an alumni group on your campus — please register today to join FIRE’s Alumni Network. Through the network, FIRE will deliver breaking news about your alma mater, but also gain a sense of who might be interested in starting or joining a free speech alumni group working to improve your own campus. 

How it begins, but hopefully not how it ends

This intriguing paper “Avoidance begets avoidance: A computational account of negative stereotype persistence,” describes how early influences can bias a person against certain groups—an activity that compounds and worsens over time. The implications of this important paper are that who you meet early in life—and what is taught in K-12—can set the tone for later, far stronger biases.

That’s all for this week. Have a thoughtful week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

View more Cheery Friday e-mails >