“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
— Alexander Pope
I watched a World War II documentary on YouTube over the holidays. I’ve seen hundreds of them. This one was different. The footage was familiar — there’s only so much archival material available — but the narration was incongruous with the imagery. Strikingly so. It was pro-Nazi.
The war was everybody else’s fault, the American voice-over cooly explained. Hitler was a peaceful man forced into fighting, then smeared by liberal historians after his death. I paused the video after a minute or two to check the number of people who had watched it. The counter read: 1,897,611, with 7k in “likes” and 2k in “dislikes.”
The comment section chilled the blood colder: Amid typical neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rants were what appeared to be honest take-aways from everyday people who had just viewed the 97-minute film. Many were critical. More weren’t.
“Very educational,” one of the 14,200 commenters wrote. “Eye opening,” wrote another. “Pieces of history I did not know much about and now explained. Well done and thank you,” penned a third. Someone named James J. teetered: “I don’t know what to believe anymore. Public schooling is so Americanized.”
Victor C. nailed the larger issue, if not the grammar — “thanks of new technology,” he wrote, “we know the other side of the history, a new history that cant be find in school books.” He’s right in there somewhere. The internet is making it easier to spawn and cultivate “new” histories and dismiss established ones.
It’s coming from all sides. Nearly half (44 percent) of American millennials say they would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism, a 2017 survey reported, showing that subjectivity may be in even shorter supply than objectivity. Do the hardest lessons learned only survive a generation or two?
The year that just ended should alarm Americans about the one now before us. In 2017, almost half of us, according to public surveys, came to believe that there is a “Deep State” in this country, a clandestine brotherhood of military, intelligence and government officials driving the agenda.
Think about that for a minute, even if you buy into it. Consider how quickly that “Deep State” narrative crystallized and took hold. In a period of months, legitimate concern about tenured bureaucrats in Washington was weaponized into a broad-stroke concept with the power to discredit almost anything or anyone, including the forthcoming results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The internet made that possible.
If hard evidence emerges in 2018 that candidate Trump and his team conspired with Russian intelligence to help win the 2016 election — and it very well may not — America could have a real problem on its hands. A significant percentage of us might genuinely not accept whatever evidence is presented. Certain cable news hosts are laying down a narrative in anticipation of that possibility, recklessly and unpatriotically tossing the word “coup” around on live TV.
They’re playing with fire.
A square, Joseph Goebbels told the world, can be proved to be a circle if you say it enough times and understand your audience. “They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise,” the Nazi propagandist explained.
The question for us as a nation isn’t whether we can survive the Mueller probe. We will. The question is whether our faith in one another as Americans can endure in the age of the internet. The months ahead may test the question.
The count on that Nazi propaganda video is now at 1,914,033. More than 16,400 newly “edified” viewers in less than a week.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.