Shakespeare is said to have introduced about 1000 words and over 100 idioms into the English language, and we often cite him as an immense influence on modern English as we know it. By contrast, the Nazi-Deutsch Lexicon, a dictionary of all the new words and specials senses in which old words were appropriated, lists at least twice as many introductions into the German language by Nazis as Shakespeare achieved in English.
As every voter realizes, politically motivated lies, propaganda, and spin present significant challenges to a just and fair democracy. Political myth, however, is a less recognized and potentially more dangerous adversary. While lies and propaganda might be exposed for what they are, and spin may be corrected by the ‘facts’, political myth is largely immune to argument and reason because it projects a dream for the community, a narrative in light of which a group or nation orients itself and forms its identity. At the same time, however, these myths can be used to exclude and silence those whom a community rejects. As Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer wrote of the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933: “The real rearmament began with the origin and rise of the political myths. The later military rearmament was only an accessory after the fact.” But, what is political myth, and how does it work? According to Cassirer, myth works according to the 'magical' function of language, a mode of speech wherein saying and being coincide. This immediate link between what is said and what becomes the case for a community means that myth can breed discontent, violence, and paralysis, even while it speaks ostensibly in terms of freedom and security, and cultural identity. “Political myth acted in the same way as a serpent that tries to paralyze its victims before attacking them," Cassirer says. "Men...were vanquished and subdued before they had realized what actually happened.” This talk examines the relationship between language and politics in the context of Nazi Germany, with an eye toward current and emerging forms of political practice.
This talk was given by Robert Leib on November 3rd, 2016 at the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Colloquium Series at Florida Atlantic University.