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Father Charles Coughlin was a leading proponent of American antisemitism during the 1930s. Photo: Public domain

COVID isn’t the only invisible menace we face

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COVID isn’t the only invisible menace we face

Father Charles Coughlin was a leading proponent of American antisemitism during the 1930s. Photo: Public domain

Did you know that COVID is a Jewish disease? That Jews are responsible for “debt slavery”? That one of the things Jews do is rape children?

One of the reasons you may not know these “facts” is that you are not on the social media channels of the organizations that the Anti-Defamation League called out in its most recent study on white supremacy groups. But one of the reasons you need to know about these messages of hate is that these groups are flourishing on the web, the products of their warped perspectives are proliferating, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction in our culture.

One result: Antisemitic messaging and content on the web increased by 27 percent last year over the previous year.

Another result: We are living in a toxic environment where the distinction between fact and fiction is blurred, where responsible information competes with irresponsible disinformation, where the marketplace of ideas is polluted and where consensus is compromised.

“Propaganda campaigns let white supremacists maximize media and online attention while limiting the risk of individual exposure, negative media coverage, arrests and public backlash that often accompanies more public activities,” the ADL reported. “By using propaganda to spread hate, a small number of people can have an outsized impact, giving the appearance of larger numbers and affecting entire communities.”

On the ground, the situation is slightly better, with a 5 percent drop in extremist incidents in the past year. But in the air, the situation remains dangerous – highly combustible tinder, you might say, that can easily ignite.

“Reports from the ADL always raise the hair on the back of your neck, but it has become very obvious that either misinformation, disinformation or just plain bad information is proliferating in ways we don’t even understand,” Lucy Dalgliesh, dean of University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said in an interview. “It contributes to the polarization in the country on many, many issues. For the first time, there is real doubt, real confusion and real ignorance about how to find truthful information. Our society can only thrive if people are making decisions based on fact. I am horrified when I go on social media when I see what some people accept as fact.”

Here are some of the things you may find if you wade into the muck of hate groups. Spoiler warning: These messages will spoil your day.

“America is Under Occupa­tion,” printed across a Star of David

“Resist Zionism,” printed along with a Star of David broken by a sword

“Every Single Aspect of the Covid Agenda is Jewish,” with a list of a more than a dozen federal health officials, beginning with CDC leader Rochelle Walensky

“Hitler was Right”

“Death to Israel”

One of the groups distributing these messages is called the Goyim Defense League, with its efforts continuing into this year. The neo-Nazi Nationalist Socialist Club, a self-proclaimed “White Defense Force,” is active throughout New England, with messages that include “New England Nationalism = Keep New England white,” “Jews rape kids,” “White defense force,” “Black lives murder white children” and “Jews killed Jesus.”

This region has never been immune to hate groups. In the World War II era, Nazi sympathizers held rallies in Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, a Nazi “diplomat” operated openly in Boston, and speakers with ties to Father Charles Coughlin spoke about those atheistic-Jewish communists” and proclaimed, “Let’s kill all the Jews!”

Most of this activity was well known in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It peaked in the years of Nazi ascendancy, then was packed away as Boston sought and then acquired a fresh identity as a citadel of liberalism – but recently was brought to light by a Jesuit priest who teaches at Boston College and was horrified by what he learned.

In “Nazis of Copley Square,” the Rev. Charles R. Gallagher described how Germany’s consul in Boston, the committed Nazi Herbert Wilhelm Scholz, operated without shame or artifice out of 36 Chestnut St., where a Nazi flag flew openly. When Father Gallagher’s book was published last fall by the Harvard University Press, the reaction was shock and disbelief mixed with knowing nods of familiarity. Scholz and anti-Jewish propaganda blossomed at a time when anti-democratic tyrants gained followers and power and when fact and fiction were in a dangerous tango.

It was a time much like our own, when separate visions of the “truth” collide, when hate is stirred and mobilized, when conspiracy theories fester and then flourish.

“When fear runs rampant as it has during the pandemic, so do messages of hate and bigotry,” said David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. “Just when it’s most important for the public to have reliable, fact-based information, we are inundated with misinformation designed to assign blame to the groups white supremacists hate. More than ever, it’s incumbent on all of us to stand up against these lies.”

Today, responsible scholars and journalists are battling white supremacists and propagandists. Conflicting messages of “the truth” are in combat even as new methods of distributing messages of hate proliferate. Make no mistake: There is a war underway. This is a time not only when the truth may set people free. It also is a time when the survival of freedom requires the truth.

David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.

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