I feel like the virtual ink had barely dried on my rage-rant about our Sieg Heiling Baraboo teens—and our moral obligation to call it by its true name—before it hit the Midwestern news cycle that yet another white supremacist had popped up to scream fire in a crowded theater, at a Baltimore production of Fiddler on the Roof. (In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fiddler is set during Russian pogroms, probably much like those that drove my cousins’ people out of the Ukraine.) Fiddler on the Roof‘s official Twitter called it an isolated incident (I mean, what else are they gonna say?), but let’s face it—it is no more isolated than those Baraboo teens are unrepresentative samples of Baraboo, or Wisconsin, or the United States.
Rhetoric is part of the reason we find ourselves in a world of surging hate crimes, sieg heiling, dairy-fed teenage boys, and Fiddler-goers who scream fire (or, rather, Hitler—and Trump). Rhetoric got pretty far in the Third Reich, too. Delve into that rhetoric with The Language of the Third Reich, by Victor Klemperer, who was there—and whose diaries are among those that preserve the horror of the Nazi regime for those of us who weren’t. (There are multiple editions of the diaries, including The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1945-1959, I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941, and I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945.) You may also be interested in another German’s work: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, originally published in 1951.
Without a strong use of propaganda, most rhetoric—such as that Klemperer discusses—would fall flat. Learn about the Third Reich’s use of propaganda in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy’s Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. If you are interested in modern propaganda—and willing to take the time and energy to step into academic (and philosophical—it won an award for philosophy writing, folks) work—you might be interested in Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works.
Wondering about the ways in which propaganda and hate is spread? Learn about how algorithms can reinforce hegemonic beliefs—and worse—in Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. (Want a quick read? Check out her article for Bitch Magazine, available here as a pdf.) Take a tour of the violent ways in which social media is used in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Go further into algorithms—and the corporations, such as Cambridge Analytica, that use them—with Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-Bubbles: The Algorithms that Control Our Lives and Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.
Fascism is a rather important topic in this our contemporary America, too. Delve into the tyrannies of the twentieth century—which, of course, are replicated in the twenty-first—with historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. Travel alongside Madeleine Albright into the rise, and dangers, of fascism in Fascism: A Warning. Take a philosophical tour of it with Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, then step through time into the ruins of another democracy with Benjamin Carter Hett’s The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. (Babylon Berlin, that masterful noir on Netflix, takes place during the death of the Weimar Republic.)
Tumble into a certain white-washed brick House—and its orange loudmouth-in-chief’s administration—with Fear: Trump in the White House, by the guy you know because he already brought one president down. Visit an optimist’s take on our hellscape with The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (and note that surviving is, well, for the people who survive–and that a lot of our previous hellscapes have not left many survivors). Similarly, you may find Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence an interesting companion to these trying times.
Wondering how any of us non-WASPs, from Irish and Italians to Poles and Jews (some of whom, of course, were Italian and Polish and German and what have you)? Check out books like David Roediger’s Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, Nell Irvin Painter’s masterly The History of White People, Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, and Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White. And interested in the ways in which the West has viewed the Jewish people? Try reading Chad Alan Goldberg’s Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought, a finalist for the 2017 Modern Jewish Thought and Experience Award of the National Jewish Book Awards.
Can’t be a booklist of mine without some fiction, amitire? So step into Auschwitz, as prisoners, stripped of their dignity and often of their lives struggle to preserve culture—and books—in The Librarian of Auschwitz, a multiple award-winner based on the life of a woman who really did serve as a librarian to an illicit collection of works tied to an illicit school in Auschwitz. Go undercover in occupied Amsterdam with a young black market finder as she searches for a missing girl in Girl in the Blue Coat. Step into The Grand Mosque of Paris as Paris’s Muslims work tirelessly to save their Jewish neighbors, hiding them in the great Paris mosque under the Gestappo’s very eyes. (This one isn’t exactly fiction, but it is a picture book.)
Visit a horrific alternate America—except maybe it’s not as alternate as we might wish—with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Follow Death as they narrate the tale of a young girl whose book-thieving helps her family—and the people they hide—survive World War II in The Book Thief, which has also been made into a movie. Follow refugees fleeing the Red Army towards doomed ships as Germany stumbles towards defeat in Salt to the Sea, then visit Siberia in Between Shades of Gray (that’s a movie now also). Wondering what happened to some of the aristocracy that survived (unlike the Prussian junkars in Salt to the Sea)? Try reading The Women in the Castle.
And, of course, don’t forget: Call Them By Their True Names, because, as Rebecca Solnit’s subtitle notes, we are in a series of American crises, and true-naming is, at least, one thing we can all do.