Voltaire is well known for having quotations falsely attributed to him. Most people are now aware that the statement “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was not in fact by Voltaire himself. But the supposed Voltairian maxim “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize” is still regularly promoted on social media, usually in the form of a meme featuring a huge hand crushing the people.
Here is what appears to be the earliest version of that meme. With the Star of David featured prominently on the sleeve, it is unequivocally antisemitic. Jews rule over us, and non-Jews are therefore prevented from “criticising” them. That’s the meme’s message.
Which is not surprising, since the quote is not by Voltaire at all, but rather a paraphrase of a comment made in 1993 by a US neo-Nazi named Kevin Alfred Strom. It formed part of a fascist diatribe by Strom on a radio show called American Dissident Voices, of which he was then the presenter. The show was produced by the National Alliance, a white supremacist organisation founded by William Pierce, author of the far-right apocalyptic fantasy novel The Turner Diaries which inspired the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Strom’s actual words were: “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize? We all know who it is that we are not permitted to criticize. We all know who it is that it is a sin to criticize … anti-semitism is the ultimate sin in America.” He continued: “But as things get worse and worse, we are losing our fear of this silly word. We all know who it is that controls the wealth of our nation through their exchanges and counting-houses in New York. We all know who it is that has deformed the minds of two generations of Americans with their television programs.”
The version of the meme that is more commonly circulated, however, is this one. It has been edited to remove the Star of David, although the symbol is still visible if you look carefully. (Try reducing the size of the image and you’ll find that it is more easily distinguishable.)
You can understand why people might see nothing wrong in sharing this meme. Superficially it appears to be an attack on the moneyed elite in general, with the sparkling diamond ring on one of the fingers indicating the wealth of the oppressors. However, nobody really argues that you’re not allowed to “criticise” the rich, so that interpretation doesn’t make much sense. In any case, given the source and original meaning of the “Voltaire” quote, it should be obvious that it is unacceptable for anyone on the left to promote the meme, even in this amended form.
Then there is a third version of the meme, in which the Star of David has been restored, but in the form of the Israeli national flag. The message here being that it’s not Jews who rule over us but the state of Israel.
Actor John Cusack got into trouble last year when he tweeted this version of the meme, in the belief that he was supporting the Palestinian people against Israeli state violence. After initially defending himself on the grounds that the Star of David referenced Israel not Jews, Cusack eventually backed down and apologised, in a series of tweets which included the admission: “The use of the star, even if it depicts the state of Israel committing human rights violations – when combined with anti Jewish tropes about power – is antisemitic & antisemitism has no place in any rational political dialoge [sic].”
Cusack was right. Unfortunately there are some on the left who can’t see that. They point to the undoubted fact that militant Zionists often misrepresent all opposition to Israel as antisemitic, and they mistakenly conclude from this that no expression of hostility towards Israel is antisemitic, as long as it doesn’t target Jews as such. But Zionist-conspiracy theories about people and governments across the world being secretly ruled from Tel Aviv have obvious echoes of traditional racist myths about the controlling power of Jews. For that reason this third form of the meme should be avoided too.
First published on Medium in September 2020