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Canada’s ‘Freedom Convoy’, Holocaust Imagery, and the Long 20th Century

On January 29th, 2022, a protest convoy of long-haul truckers and their supporters converged on Ottawa, Canada to display their rejection of a vaccine mandate imposed upon truckers crossing the US-Canada border into Canada. 

The protest had picked up steam in the preceding weeks and tens of thousands of people from around Canada and the world rallied in support of the cause and to reject the ever-expanding medical authoritarianism that has metastasized during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As predicted, the media and left-wing politicians denounced or attempted to minimise the convoy and related protests. Some even suggested that the Russians were involved in the convoy, whilst spokesmen for the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN), including its chair, Bernie Farber, stated that the movement had been hijacked by neo-Nazis and that swastikas were being flown at the protest.

Now, I can only find evidence of one swastika being flown by one person who was also flying a ‘F*ck Trudeau’ flag, and the reaction is somewhat telling.

You see, despite the apparent presence of this one flag, most news reports make  vague comments about ‘symbols of hate’ which included everything from a single Confederate flag to signs displaying swastikas, as well as yellow stars, and a sign that read ‘Assassin Trudeau’ with the letters S in ‘assassin’ are replaced with the SS runes of the Schutzstaffel (elite guards of the Third Reich). Though the media is making hay out of the instances it can, they do not seem to be taking full advantage of this apparent bias-confirming instance: there was no attempt to interview the flag flier, and the photos of him were from a great distance from the much larger crowd. Perhaps the flying of a Nazi flag was too good to be true. After all, there are a few possibilities here: the man flying the swastika was either a) a sincere sympathizer with the NSDAP and national socialist principles, b) a troll, c) an undercover agent, or d) just a guy comparing Trudeau to Hitler. One’s answer here will often depend on one’s political priors, but the reality of a) seems unlikely.

Though it is useful to look at the facts on the ground, there are broader philosophical questions about the nature of symbolism, interpretation and meaning.

We can guess, with a fair degree of accuracy, how the aforementioned imagery will be interpreted by people like Bernie Farber: he is the son of a Holocaust survivor, after all. But Farber isn’t alone: most Canadians are highly sensitised to such imagery, the history it evokes, and the suffering that is associated with it. As such, those symbols are not taken lightly. But if the symbols are so controversial, why do people feel like they can use them? What message is being sent by the use of such symbols?

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen its fair share of protests, and in some cases Nazi imagery has been used to demonise the subject of the protest in question. 

Across the US in 2020-2021, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that anti-lockdown protesters used Nazi imagery to analogise their own governments’ policies. In Michigan, protesters likened their governor Gretchen Whitmer to Adolf Hitler – often with her image vandalised with the iconic ‘Hitler-stache’ and coupled with swastikas. Similar instances were seen in New Mexico, Ohio, Alaska, and other states wherein people wore ‘yellow stars’ and made Anne Frank references.

Even before the pandemic, however, Nazi imagery has been used in Hong Kong by pro-democracy protesters to liken the Chinese government to the Nazis and pro-Palestinian protests have used swastika bedecked Israeli flags, too.

That people use these symbols is one thing, but why? It is because of its political cache. 

Nazis represent threats to the open society, and their symbols are used to tarnish people and groups who are deemed to be such threats – either real or imagined. The Left does this to the Right, and the Right does this to the Left. 

The point here isn’t to go down the laundry list of grievances and tally up the numbers to see which side is worse at name-calling. You see, calling your political opponents ‘Nazis’ or ‘fascists’ is just what political opponents do in the Anglosphere. The point is to acknowledge that the Right lacks cultural dominance and thus cannot use symbols in the way that the Left can. Furthermore, the Right is viewed to be forever on the ‘wrong side of history’ and as the embodiment of the very thing those symbols are said to attack. That is why the flying of a Nazi flag/making Holocaust references at a protest against COVID tyranny is immediately viewed by the Left as an endorsement of Nazism and not as a symbol of condemnation of said tyranny. 

What people who use such symbols have done is detect a narrative weapon that gets wielded against the opponents of the ‘open society’. They view phenomenon X as a threat to the open society, and thus think that they can wield the symbols in the service of their own cause. But since the Right is deemed by the Left to be prima facie ‘anti-open society’, and the Left is in power, any right-wing use of Nazi/Holocaust imagery, even in an accusatory fashion, will invite immediate condemnation. The whole thing backfires. Its like they’re characters in a sci-fi film who try to use the alien technology against the aliens – they just don’t know how its used. 

The Left can condemn Trump’s handling of the US-Mexico border as neo-fascist and compared the detainment of minors to ‘concentration camps‘, only to receive moralistic praise for doing so – even by Holocaust survivors themselves. But when the Right claims that there are ‘COVID concentration camps’, they’re called conspiracy theorists exploiting the Holocaust

Right-wing protesters who use yellow stars, swastikas, concentration camp references, etc. are charged with exploiting or co-opting the memory of the Holocaust – whether by people like Bernie Farber and CAHN, or Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL or the Auschwitz Memorial Museum. But what does that mean? Does that imagery belong to any one group in particular? It is true that Jews suffered greatly during the Holocaust and that millions of them died, but it is also true that roughly 70 million people died. Some estimates reckon that about 3% of the world’s population perished in World War II – 50 million during the war and 20 million afterwards from war-related famine and disease. Many Canadians and Americans – at least of European descent – know people who fought and/or died during World War II, and so many people feel a connection to that grand conflagration. They feel as though they’ve inherited some of the memory of that period as well as internalised its lessons – and so they think they can use the symbols.

We’re told that the Allies fought the Nazis, and the Nazis were killing Jews. Therefore, the Allies fought to save the Jews. This, of course, is an inaccurate and simplistic account, but its a very popular one. Which is why World War II is associated heavily with the Holocaust, and so people use symbols associated with each as part of a larger overarching narrative of good-versus-evil. 

Is Farber a cynical manipulator of the Holocaust to demonize Canadian truckers and suppress the right of Canadians to freedom of expression?

Despite this, folks like Farber and Greenblatt say that using the imagery ‘is insulting to the memory of all those who were persecuted and murdered’. I don’t see how this is the case. To my understanding, these protesters are finding common cause in the suffering of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust by drawing comparisons to that suffering and their own lives (even if it is misguided). The Farbers and Greenblatts of the world instead see cynical people who are willing to weaponise history for political gain. (They’d never do that, right?)

But I don’t see how Farber and Greenblatt can have it both ways: they want robust Holocaust education that educates all people about the consequences of bigotry and hatred and to critically reflect upon and internalise the lessons of the Holocaust. But they don’t want people to utilise Holocaust imagery for their own purposes. So which is it? Is the Holocaust and World War II, in general, a rich and tragic trove of informative analogies through which we could understand our time and caution us against slipping into barbarism? Or is it just a dogma to be genuflected towards?

Its neither. 

Its a weapon. And you don’t get to use it.

Now, to be clear there are the facts that make up what the Holocaust ‘is’ (I’m not talking about those), and there are the symbols and tropes that the Holocaust ‘represents’. When we talk about ‘the Holocaust’, we are often not just relaying facts – many people, in fact, are thin on the facts. Instead, we are talking about the grander meta-narrative that the Holocaust signifies, and that meta-narrative has largely replaced the history. This partly explains the incongruence between persistent ‘Holocaust education’ and actual knowledge of its history. And what does the Holocaust signify? Well, the answer is a boring, ‘it depends’.

Like all societal symbols – whether from monuments to myths – the Holocaust represents or expresses certain dominant ideas that are intended to be passed on from generation to generation. As such, individuals in society will often internalise the dominant ideas in the construction of their own identity, and this process brings into existence an individual’s ‘subjectivity’: how one experiences one’s self in the larger scheme of society and its rules, stories, history, and destiny. This can give one a sense of superiority as one sees one’s self as connected to the dominant culture and its ideas, or one can feel alienated from it.

Given that the Holocaust is so ingrained in our society it is no mystery why its symbolism is used in social and political discourses.  It also isn’t a mystery that the use of Holocaust imagery is controlled and relegated to certain groups. As stated before, the Right isn’t in power, the Left is, and the Holocaust is used to express certain dominant ideas. Since those dominant ideas are at odds with how the Right is viewed, or even at odds with what the Right wants, the symbolism is denied to it.

This shows one of the conceits of the discourse surrounding the Holocaust: generally speaking, the Holocaust is supposed to represent the depths of human depravity – Man’s inhumanity to Man. It represents the horrors of authoritarian politics predicated on the unjustified hierarchisation of human groups and the resulting dehumanisation. However, one can see how this general description is at odds with how the Holocaust functions – one glaring example is found in the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism

In this definition, there are eleven (11) examples of what the IHRA sees as anti-Semitic. While some examples are uncontroversial – being instances of violence, vandalism, and abuse – there are some debatable examples.

First, there is Example 8 which is ‘applying double standards by requiring of [the State of Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ There is also Example 10: ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’.

These two examples clash in an obvious way: if Israel is to be held to the same standards of any other nation (as per Example: 8), and, if like any other nation, Israel could fall into fascism and/or racism, a la Nazi Germany, then why is it anti-Semitic when such comparisons are applied to Israel? Surely other democratic nations are held to standards that proscribe racism, genocide, targeting of civilians, expanding territory through war, and the like – and so Israel should be held to such standards and criticised for transgressing them with it does. If not, as it seems the IHRA definition contends, then the IHRA is allowing the Jewish State of Israel to be an unjustified exemption from the principles it purports to be subject to.

These are but a couple examples of the use and abuse of the Holocaust and its power.

It is something that is universal in that it universally imposes guilt, but it can only ever be used exclusively in the service of some favoured group or other. We’re supposed to see it as a window into the darkness of our hearts, but we cannot use it as a lens to view our own victimisation.

This dead end is evidence that a new approach is in order. We should really ditch the use of such symbols since they are not only inaccurate for representing our time, but the use of such symbols by us provides nothing but opportunities for abuse by our political and cultural opponents.

We are not in the 20th century anymore and being corralled by its ambitions, pretensions, and symbols hampers our ability to think clearly about our current state and the future. (Sure, we can and ought to still learn from history – I’m not suggesting that we ditch anything and everything prior to 2000 AD. I’m saying that we can find ourselves uncritically accepting narratives, symbols, and assumptions that hamstring political action and messaging.)

Trudeau isn’t like Hitler: Trudeau is a worker bee for neo-liberal techno-capital and global homogenisation. He is a destructive force in his own way, but a pro-LGBT, cosmopolitan feminist and anti-White egalitarian isn’t Hitler, Stalin, or any other of the dictatorial leaders of the 20th century. He is a spokesman for a whole new system of totalitarianism that we’ll have to grapple with.

The protesters are right to point out the authoritarianism of our elites, but they are confused on the history and are wrong to think that their opponents will listen.  They are not only using inaccurate imagery, but they’re also using imagery that is denied to them. They don’t know how the system is tilted and in whose favour it operates. 

 We need to get out of the 20th century.  

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