What you do matters.
On a chance encounter in the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the role of disinformation in the U.S.
An outgrowth of misinformation: After then-President Donald Trump falsely told his supporters the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him, a mob rioted at the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn election results. (Photo: Alex Kent)
After spending a few days in Washington, D.C., recently for an editors conference, I found myself with a few hours before my plane back to Nashville and decided to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The museum opened in early 1993; two decades later, it was still packed, and that’s a good thing. The phrases “never forget” and “what you do matters” are posted in multiple places around the museum, a reminder of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany’s regime and a caution to be alert for signs a government might be proceeding down a similar authoritarian path.
It’s a hushed and sobering place, befitting of the subject matter, which takes the visitor on a journey through Adolf Hitler’s rise to chancellor of Germany in 1933 through the discovery by Allied troops of Nazi concentration camps in 1945, with exhibits about the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda sandwiched in between.
While I was viewing wall-sized photos of the November 1938 pogrom, the wave of state-sponsored anti-semitic violence — sometimes called the Night of Broken Glass — during which Nazi soldiers burned synagogues and trashed Jewish-owned businesses, I found myself standing next to a group of men about my age.
One wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat, the kind popularized by former President Donald Trump. Another wore a shirt emblazoned with the words, “Let’s Go Brandon!,” a phrase used by the right as code for an obscene phrase telling President Joe Biden what he can do with himself.
I speak often of the importance of writing truth, no matter who says it, and no matter who we, as journalists, anger with our words. Yet, I didn’t push back forcefully enough when I heard clear and blatant misinformation.
It’s likely I wouldn’t have pursued a conversation had I not heard a colleague address the corrosive role of disinformation and misinformation in American politics. A 40-year veteran journalist, she told my fellow editors and me that she feels America’s democracy is at risk. Never, she said, could she remember a time of so much distrust and acrimony. Journalists must reach out beyond the usual media echo chambers to cover the 2024 election, she told us.
I wanted to find out what made these guys tick.
“What brings you guys here today?” I asked the man standing next to me, a 56-year-old from Las Vegas. He told me his crew was a group of high school friends who reunited once a year. Pointing to his friend wearing the red hat, he said, “His grandmother is Polish. She survived the Holocaust.”
He went on to say three of their party of five had served in the military, him as a 22-year veteran of the Navy. They love America, he told me. Two of them have gay sons and, he told me, he would beat the hell out of anyone who harassed them for their sexual orientation. And then, as we chatted, he gestured to the wall of photos of a Nazi book burning.
“Democrats are trying to do this,” he said. “They want our country to be like this.”
I took in a breath. “Well,” I said. “You know a lot of people think Republicans are behaving like this.”
As we continued to talk, he told me the United Nations is promoting sex between adults and children as part of an international agenda of perversion — a stunningly false claim that’s been debunked by the Associated Press and Reuters, among other respected and legitimate news sources. Yet, he was convinced the rumor was true.
With a knot now in my stomach, I declined his invitation to join him and his friends for a cocktail and let them go on their way, finding my way back to the lobby, where I sat for a while, thinking.
Should I have caught up with him to explain how wrong he was? I could have shown him the many stories disproving his beliefs about the U.N. I could have presented him with mountains of information and news stories, including from the Lookout, about how one party is targeting LGBTQ+ Americans, and it’s not the Democratic Party.
I could have asked him how he would feel if one of his gay friends was forced to wear a pink triangle, as the Nazis required of LGBTQ+ Germans, and argued that any slippage of rights — the Tennessee Legislature has filed bill after bill to assault the rights of LGBTQ+ people — sets a dangerous precedent for our future.
Maybe I should have asked him how much he knows about organizations like Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group that has advocated for the elimination of books from schools that include topics on racial justice — including one about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and LGBTQ+ people.
Did he know that the German government repealed in 2022 a Nazi-era law banning physicians from discussing abortion with patients, just months before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed 50-year-old federal protections for abortion, triggering a ban on abortions in Tennessee? In states with laws that criminalize anyone who “aids” or “abets” a woman seeking an abortion, physicians won’t even discuss abortion for fear of being prosecuted.
In the weeks since the museum encounter, I find my mind going back to it. How could someone be swayed by misinformation that seems so clearly false to me? He is one of thousands, maybe millions, in our country who have been exploited to believe the worst of fellow Americans.
I failed that day. I speak often of the importance of writing truth, no matter who says it, and no matter who we, as journalists, anger with our words. Yet, I didn’t push back forcefully enough. A small incident, yes — but I failed to correct my museum companion. Maybe I could have left a seed of doubt that he would return to later, much as my thoughts returned to our conversation. Maybe my words would have led him to ask questions.
I hope to do better next time. I hope we all will.
Before I left, I stopped in the museum gift shop to look for gifts to bring home to my Lookout colleagues, selecting bound notebooks with an important message emblazoned on the front:
“What you do matters.”
This commentary first appeared in the Tennessee Lookout, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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