- Reading Warrant for Genocide in the age of Trump



Here is the third chapter of The NEXT THRILLING CHAPTER. 



With the second chapter, I’d begun leading off with an epigraph, because I’ve always found epigraphs attractive. More than once, I’ve leafed through a book reading the epigraphs at the head of each chapter. Did I ever get around to reading the book itself? One of these days...

     In a sense, I was quite sincere—at least, provisionally sincere—in considering people addicted to a range of preposterous conspiracy theories as part of my potential audience. Since such people are capable of determining to the utmost depth the causes and instigators of most of what happens both in history and in our daily lives, I thought to provide them with a little sport by declining to provide attribution for the brief quotations used. Someone who can track with certainty the evolution of a plan by secret societies and global elites, over the course of several hundred years, to eradicate human freedom (along with much of the unnecessary human population) is surely capable of finding out who said what, and where.

     Or not, as it happens. Let me be realistic, for a moment. The reason why conspiracy theories result in such corrosive idiocy is because, once it’s admitted that the appearance of things is maintained by a pervasive and all-encompassing deception, the individual fortunate enough to have pierced the veil can accept only confirmatory evidence—all evidence to the contrary being judged untrustworthy. Anything else is merely an irrelevance, of no account.

     So the bet’s off, and I’ll spill the beans on who wrote what. The epigraph to chapter 3 is from Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide, and it’s worth taking note of if you’re simply dismissive of what circulates in right-wing media because it’s nonsense:


... it is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.



Cohn’s books, The Pursuit of the Millennium and Europe’s Inner Demons, were the result of an effort to understand how the persecution and attempted extermination of Jews during the Nazi period could be explained. His answer was that


the deadliest kind of antisemitism... has little to do with real conflicts of interest between living people, or even with racial prejudice as such. At its heart lies the belief that Jews – all Jews everywhere – form a conspiratorial body set on ruining and then dominating the rest of mankind. And this belief is simply a modernized, secularized version of the popular medieval view of Jews as a league of sorcerers employed by Satan for the spiritual and physical ruination of Christendom.


Of course, modernized and secularized or not, there’s nothing inherently simple in the widespread adoption of a fantastic belief that supplants a reasonable understanding based on evidence; which makes it all the more timely to look back at Cohn’s study of how


demonological antisemitism was revived and modified by a handful of eccentric, right-wing Christians... then taken over, with appropriate modifications, by racialists, and notably by Hitler and his followers.


     The standing of psychoanalysis having declined in the half-century or so since Warrant for Genocide was published, aspects of Cohn’s interpretation may now be considered out of date. Yet at the same time it may also be noted that, writing in the middle of the twentieth century and judging antisemitic propaganda to be “archaic, half-forgotten religious beliefs” reconditioned for the modern age, Cohn didn’t anticipate that medieval demonology and apocalypticism might yet make a resurgence from the discredited margins of culture to become, once again, a political force. In his books, a continuity with medieval beliefs forms a measure of how fantastic and absurd were the modern developments of twentieth-century antisemitism: 


The extraordinary fact is that... these weird extravagances found believers. It is certain that many twentieth century devotees of the Protocols really have imagined the secret Jewish government as composed of oriental sorcerers...


But what were these “weird extravagances”? One writer


imagined the kabbalah as... a secret demonic religion... established by the Devil at the very beginning of the world... and if one asks in what precisely the cult consists, the answer is that it centres on the worship of Satan. The chief symbols are the serpent and the phallus, and the ritual includes erotic orgies of the wildest kind. But that is not all: by murdering Christian children the Jews in particular are able to acquire magical powers...


A little over a century and a half later, these beliefs are still current in some quarters, and a ruling elite are believed to be sacrificing children in order to become stronger and live longer. Members of this elite are also bound together by the sexual exploitation of children. Some who believe this story also believe members of this elite are not human, but lizards—serpents? A conviction that this malign conspiracy will ultimately be overthrown is fused with the long-awaited defeat of Satan at the end of time.

     It’s no great surprise that, even if the targets of current fantasies are not predominantly Jewish, antisemitism bubbles up around it. If they are not essentially antisemitic, nevertheless so much is made from fantasies that, historically, have been directed at Jews that they retain much of the structure of antisemitism, and are amenable to antisemitism.

     A little later, decribing the country clergy in France as “poorly educated, infinitely credulous”, Cohn writes, “What they were prepared to believe beggars description.” But describe it he does:


In 1893 that great hoaxer, Léo Taxil, had no difficulty at all in persuading them that the head of American Freemasonry had a telephone system invented and manned (if that is the word) by devils, and so was kept in constant touch with the seven major capitals of the world; or that beneath the Rock of Gibraltar squads of devils were at work, concocting epidemics to destroy the Catholic world.


How far need one go these days to find beliefs of this sort? Evangelical wolves lie to their hungrily trusting flocks with a ferocity that populates the world with as many demons as ever there were in the middle ages, even if spurious or speculative technology is left to their earthly servants, allies or dupes...