Leonard Grob and John K. Roth are philosophers, Holocaust scholars, and the joint authors of a recent book titled “Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy.” They are long-time friends who have collaborated in the past and were moved to write their current work when they saw the same kind of authoritarianism that led to the Holocaust gaining a foothold in the United States.
The invasion of Ukraine shortly after they started work on the book strengthened their conviction that American democracy is at risk.
Roth lives in Winthrop. He spoke about “Warnings” earlier this month at the Winthrop library, and was interviewed for this story.
Grob is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Farleigh Dickinson University. Roth is the Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. “Warnings” was written with the 2024 election in mind — an election Roth said he considers “the most important national election in my lifetime … because I think that the future of democracy in the United States is on the ballot.”
The book reflects Grob and Roth’s dialog as they worked to understand and come to terms with current threats to democracy in the U.S. and the implications of authoritarianism as it was practiced in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s and is threatening Europe today. Each of the authors reflected on various aspects of their subject, then responded to questions posed by the other. The dialogic format reveals their thought processes and willingness to probe their own beliefs.
Liberal and illiberal democracy
“Human decisions and policies in the 1930s led to disaster. Destructive versions of them are widespread in the 2020s,” said Roth in his Sept. 12 talk at the Winthrop library.
Challenged by their publisher to state their subject succinctly, Grob and Roth said that “Warnings defends liberal democracy against 2020s threats.” Roth explained that “liberal democracy,” as the term is used in the book, “is pluralistic and inclusive. It takes the rule of law seriously. It defends and sustains fair and free elections. It goes beyond the trappings of democracy to the actual practice of it.” Liberal democracies are in contrast to illiberal ones, in which democratic forms, such as elections and legislative bodies, are “a façade for authoritarianism,” said Roth.
The current threat to American democracy is acute, said Roth, because “we came very close to having what we could call a soft coup in this country” on Jan. 6, 2021. Following that crisis, “Democracy was on the American ballot in 2022. It won yet remains fragile and endangered,” wrote Grob and Roth in “Warnings.” “[F]ar from being out of the woods, which it never is, American democracy remains at risk. It could be trumped by conspiratorial, vengeance-driven, violence-prone, antidemocratic authoritarianism, an American version of fascism,” they wrote.
The war in Ukraine is an incursion of authoritarianism that threatens American democracy, Roth said. “Ukraine is presently the front line in a conflict between Putinism, and its authoritarianism, and democracy in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.” If Putin succeeds, said Roth, other parts of Europe will be at risk and “the world will have seen a democracy weakened and destroyed. And that has repercussions and reverberations that do not do anything to strengthen our democracy, and to the contrary, put it in a more precarious situation.”
“We could be threatened by the prospect of a third world war that might well become nuclear,” said Roth. “My own personal view here is that support for Ukraine, in its war against Russia and Putin, is vital for the interests of American democracy,” he said.
Noting that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has recently spoken before the United Nations and appeared on American television, Roth said “Zelenskyy is making an important point when he stresses that the sacrifices that the Ukrainians are making to stop Putin from success are a kind of defense of the United States.”
Grob and Roth believe strongly in the importance of education to the future of democracy, and devoted a chapter of their book to the subject.
“The schoolroom is one of the places where democracy is taught and practiced,” said Roth. “Good schoolrooms, from kindergarten on through higher education, are places that encourage curiosity, inquiry, asking questions, learning about the past — including things like we’ve been talking about here — what happens when aggressive wars take place? What happens when democracy is threatened?”
“[G]ood education … helps to ensure that democracy thrives,” said Roth, because students are “learning to inquire critically. They’re learning to understand the difference between holding beliefs that have evidence to support them, and beliefs that are nothing more than opinions or, at their worst, conspiracies. They’re learning about the importance of truth.”
Death and the dead
Just as how we learn is important, so are the ways in which we live and die, write Grob and Roth. In “Warnings,” the authors stress the importance to democracy of remembering “the murdered dead, the ones destroyed in the Holocaust, in other genocides, and in Ukraine.” That’s because “human life is precious,” said Roth. “All of us are alive in ways that are relational. … We’re members of families, we’re members of communities. When life is wasted, or events lay waste to life, the costs of that are just incalculable. So it’s important to remember how destructive human beings can be, and how costly such actions are.”
The importance of remembering lost lives also applies to events here in the U.S., said Roth. Speaking of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, he said “People were killed there. … People lost their lives trying to defend the Capitol of the United States, trying to preserve the rule of law, trying to defend the normal practices of American democracy. They lost their lives doing that. We should remember them.” Ignoring or failing to remember unjust deaths — including school shootings and genocide anywhere in the world — “invites more of the same,” said Roth.
“Americans love democracy but they tend to take it for granted,” said Roth. “I think Americans don’t fully comprehend how corrupt, how authoritarian, how threatening the loss of democracy would be to our way of life,” he said. “We already know, for example, that we’re living in a country where books are banned, libraries are threatened, the quality of education is at stake; the writing of history is on the table. These changes are not inconsequential. They affect our freedom, our liberty.”
When he spoke about Warnings at the Winthrop library, Roth said, he “could do so with confidence that I could speak freely, that no one would come and arrest me or people in the audience … that I could speak my mind and not be under threat.” Such a meeting “simply could not take place in Putin’s Russia, and certainly not in Nazi Germany or in other regimes where democracy is curtailed and restricted by authoritarian leaders.”
That freedom of expression is crucial to democracy and so also, the authors of “Warnings” believe, are the ways in which we interact with one another. As philosophers, “Lenny [Grob] and I … believe very strongly in the importance of respect for people who hold views different from our own. We place a high premium on discussion, on dialog, on listening to what other people have to say. We need to ask questions and things of that kind. We are hopeful that in conversation and dialog, people can learn from each other.”
There are many things Americans can do to protect democracy, said Roth. “We can encourage people to vote, we can help with voter registration efforts, we can support newspapers and other media that speak in defense of democracy,” said Roth. Above all, he stressed “the importance of exercising the right to vote. It’s crucial. And to ensure that elections that are held are free and fair, and then to respect the outcomes of elections that are free and fair. That’s something all of us can do. And probably at this point that’s about as important as anything you can think of.”
Resisting “powers that undercut” democracies and supporting what is good, true, right, and just are critical to America’s future, argue Grob and Roth in “Warnings.” “This is your democracy,” they write in their epilog. “Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
“Warnings” is available at Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop and online.