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Dangerous thoughtlessness of a coronavirus political cartoon

Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order mandating the use of masks, Kansas, Jul 20, 2020.

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USA TODAY/PA. All rights reserved.

On July 3, the publisher of the Anderson County Review, a local newspaper in eastern Kansas, posted a political cartoon to the paper’s Facebook page. The publisher, Dane Hicks, who also serves as the county’s GOP chairman, had created the image himself in response to a recent mask order by the state’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly. The cartoon depicted Governor Kelly wearing a mask adorned with the Jewish Star of David. In the background, women and children are being loaded onto trains. The caption made the political valence clear: “Lockdown Laura says: “Put on your mask… and step onto the cattle car.”

Hicks’s cartoon quickly garnered international attention. The Associated Press and The New York Times ran stories, which fed reporting as far away as The Times of Israel. Many condemned the cartoon for trading in antisemitic imagery, for trivializing the Holocaust, and for undermining efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Some critics accused Hicks of conspiracy-mongering. Rabbi Moti Rieber of Kansas Interfaith Action suggested the cartoon implied that “nefarious Jews” are behind Kelly’s actions. Hicks himself denied any “slight” to Jews or Holocaust survivors. “[T]hey better than anyone,” he explained in an email, “should appreciate the harbingers of governmental overreach and the present but tender seedlings of tyranny.”

I am a native of Anderson County, Kansas, and I return there often. Today, however, I am also a historian of modern Germany who specializes in fascism and the radical right. In other words, I study the kind of destructive and dehumanizing politics that Mr. Hicks purports to warn against. As someone surprised to find his hometown in the headlines in a way so interwoven with his work, I would like to suggest that something else is going on in this episode, which is itself symptomatic of how wearing masks in a pandemic has become a marker of partisan loyalty.

Hicks’s cartoon, I believe, offers a lesson in the dangerous thoughtlessness of our “culture war” politics. His subsequent apology, too, is significant for what it says about the enlarged and self-critical mentality that is actually needed to keep totalitarianism from taking root.

Thoughtlessness vs. critical thinking

By “thoughtlessness,” I mean something very specific. What I do not mean is that the cartoon was ignorant, irresponsible, or offensive. Of course, the cartoon was these things. But in describing it as “thoughtless,” I mean that the cartoon showed a literal absence of thinking: a failure to see plain facts, to judge them sensibly, and to reflect on one’s actions. Thoughtlessness in this sense is neither rare nor a synonym for stupidity: it is both compatible with high intelligence and commonly found in everyday life any time we do not stop and think about what we are doing.

The peril of thoughtlessness was an abiding concern of Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), and many other works whose overarching aim was to understand how the political nightmares of the twentieth century ­– totalitarianism, terror, genocide – had become possible. In The Human Condition (1958), she described thoughtlessness as “the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial or empty.” This incapacity to think about what we are doing, Arendt lamented, is “among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” In her last book, The Life of the Mind, unfinished at her death in 1975, Arendt argued that thoughtlessness shields us from the world: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”

The most infamous example of thoughtlessness in Arendt’s work was the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, a bureaucratic “desk killer” of the Holocaust who organized the mass deportations that Hicks’s cartoon depicts. Arendt was in the Jerusalem courtroom when Eichmann stood trial in 1961. What she observed, she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was not a figure of ‘satanic greatness’ but someone clownishly imprisoned in officialese, malapropisms, and clichés “devoid of reality.”

“Put on your mask… and step onto the cattle car.”

“I appreciate... their commitment to civil discourse as a means of resolution rather than mob noise.”

Hicks’s apology suggests the effort at critical reflection and seeing the world through others’ eyes that Arendt called for as a prophylaxis against totalitarianism’s return. That is some cause for joy in this very dark time. Maybe another Arendtian virtue – forgiveness, which she believed necessary for the healing of any body politic, given the inevitability of human error – is also called for. Forgiveness is not in the repertoire of today’s woke scolds and talk radio blowhards, who only condemn. But if we are to get beyond the recriminations of the culture wars, and trust one another and live together, it has to be.

Eichmann’s evil, Arendt argued, controversially, resulted from “banal” factors like careerism, a lack of imagination, and an inability to “think from the standpoint of someone else.” When the Third Reich’s culture told Eichmann that killing Jews was okay, his dependence on rigid rules and recycled language made him unable to resist the regime’s ideological distortions or even (she claimed) fully grasp what he was doing. Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and hanged in May 1962. His thoughtlessness, Arendt believed, was summed up in the “grotesque silliness” of his final words. Trapped in linguistic conventions, Eichmann reproduced the clichés of funeral oratory – forgetting, seemingly, that the funeral was his own.

Soundbites replacing thought

Mr. Hicks’s cartoon was thoughtless in ways similar to what Arendt diagnosed in Eichmann. It was the product less of deliberate wickedness than of bondage to clichés and conventionality, knee-jerk partisanship, opportunism, and a failure to consider matters from other points of view. The cartoon expresses a syndrome of unthinking political activism familiar among today’s culture warriors. Politics, of course, has always trafficked in soundbites that encapsulate sweeping narratives and demands for social redress – Manifest Destiny,” “Land, Bread, and Peace,” “Germany Awake!” – but such truncations have become the essence of culture war.

As the sociologist James Davison Hunter put it in his 1991 book Culture Wars, “each side struggles to monopolize the symbols of legitimacy,” while simultaneously casting opponents as extremists “marginal to the mainstream of American life.” In the culture war struggle, language is not just politicized but flattened into tendentious friend-enemy oppositions that require no exegesis. Names like “Moral Majority” or “People for the American Way” suggest a landscape starkly divided into saints and sinners, true Americans and anti-Americans. Each camp self-righteously excommunicates the other from the American project via aphorisms and mottos and dark insinuations whose cumulative effect, for a great many people, is to function not as shorthand for thought, but as its replacement. This superficial sloganeering fosters the neglect of critical thinking which, Arendt argued in a famous simile, enables evil to spread “like a fungus on the surface.”

Proof of the thoughtlessness of Hicks’s cartoon lies in its very incoherence. For example, if its purpose is antisemitic, then the implication of Jewish perfidy in the foreground (mask mandates as a Jewish plot?) clashes bizarrely with the reminder of Jewish victimhood in the background. On the other hand, if Hicks means, as I think he does, that the Democratic governor is acting like a Nazi and Kansans are the new Jews, then Governor Kelly should be emblazoned with a swastika, not the Star of David. The mask, as the emblem of oppression, should be on those forced onto the train, not on Kelly as the agent of allegedly despotic state power.

The cartoon bungles its symbolism in other ways as well. Wearing the Star of David was enforced on a Jewish minority in order to stigmatize and persecute; masks, however, are meant to be worn by everyone for the purpose of protection. Masks have no discriminatory intent.

The cartoon’s caption invites further confusion. The Trumpian moniker “Lockdown Laura” flatly misrepresents an order that, in the state government’s own words, “doesn’t change where you can go or what you can do.” It is as though a whole jumble of slogans and oversimplifications – Jews as ultimate victims, Nazis as ultimate oppressors, “big government” Democrats, liberty-loving Republicans, “tyranny” as a go-to tag for any government you don’t like, has landed on the page, less as an argument than as an ensemble that invites the viewer to just be – angry. Any way you read it, the cartoon makes little sense; in his rush to indict Governor Kelly, Hicks simply could not have been thinking about what he was doing.

Making Auschwitz possible

The cartoon has, however, an inadvertent value. It displays how seductive thoughtless culture-war political activism can become – indeed, mostly is – and it reminds us that knowing about the Holocaust is very different from thinking about it. The Holocaust reduced to a set of ready-to-hand clichés and deployable symbols with which to bash your political rivals is no cautionary tale able to prevent a second Auschwitz but something closer to the opposite: the very retreat from reality into empty and trivialized “truths” that helped make Auschwitz possible.

Hicks’s initial defence of the cartoon fared no better. “Political editorial cartoons,” he wrote, “are gross over-caricatures designed to provoke debate… fodder for the marketplace of ideas.” The cartoon, he claimed, intended to highlight Governor Kelly’s “governmental overreach,” her “absconding with… tax refunds” and “disastrous statewide shutdown that torpedoed businesses and schools.”

A caricature exaggerates features of reality; but it should not falsify reality. If only Adolf Hitler had confined his malfeasance to mask mandates! Hicks’s defence is another barrage of clichés: “the marketplace of ideas,” “torpedoed businesses,” provoking “debate,” the repeated charge of “governmental overreach.” What debate is being provoked? Whether a mask order that counties are permitted to opt out of (as Anderson County did) resembles genocide? Whether Laura Kelly is Heinrich Himmler in embryo? Whether it’s a pandemic or a plandemic? Plainly there is something potentially draconian about a government order that tells citizens what to wear or when to cover their face. And just as plainly, Governor Kelly’s mask order does not amount to nascent totalitarianism. The only way to tell the difference is to think about what is going on.

This is the kind of spine-chilling thoughtlessness that Arendt witnessed in 1961. (Recent research has indicated that Eichmann was in fact a vicious ideologue. But the revelation does not impair Arendt’s argument about the perils of thoughtlessness – there were many such officials, even if Eichmann himself was not one of them.) Hicks’ own choice of Holocaust imagery invites the Eichmann comparison. As does his characterization of his critics as “liberal Marxist parasites,” language far closer to Nazism than anything from Governor Kelly’s pen.

Hicks rethinks

Having charged Hicks, let me now speak in his defence. In a statement two days later, on July 5, Hicks apologized for the cartoon, which he removed. “After some heartfelt and educational conversations with Jewish leaders in the U.S. and abroad,” he wrote, “I can acknowledge the imagery in my recent editorial cartoon… was deeply hurtful to members of a culture who’ve been dealt plenty of hurt throughout history.” It is worth pointing out that no such statement was made by Eichmann, who went to the gallows proclaiming himself a sacrificial victim who had only been following orders.

Hicks’s statement also indicated a reconsideration of the cynical motives behind the cartoon. “Facebook is a cesspool,” he initially wrote in an email defending his work, “and I only participate to develop readership.” Those readers, Hicks added, are “my narcissistic flea circus – I make them jump and give them free rein to attack me.” His apology veered from such rabble-rousing back to the merits of an honest public sphere. “I appreciate the patience and understanding of those who convinced me to [remove the cartoon], and their commitment to civil discourse as a means of resolution rather than mob noise,” he wrote.

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