The Need for Classic Liberal Values
In 1942, a group of students at the University of Munich formed an intellectual resistance group called the WeiBe Rose — White Rose. The group’s aim was to urge Germans to resist and overturn the Nazi regime; in the process, they exposed the Nazis’ crimes for all the world to see.
Led by Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie, Alexander Schmorell, and Christoph Probst, the group distributed leaflets throughout Germany, and engaged in other acts of sabotage and resistance, such as writing “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” on walls throughout Munich.
Most of the group was composed of fairly religious Christians: they believed that they could not continue to stay silent in light of the barbaric atrocities the Third Reich was committing. Sophie’s boyfriend wrote to her: “We know by whom we are created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil.” It was a paraphrase of John Henry Newman’s sermon “The Testimony of Conscience.”
The White Rose’s leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, and Goethe. These brave heroes knew that they could — and likely would — face death as a result of disseminating the truth. But they felt that in the face of evil, silence was not an option.
Within days of being caught distributing leaflets at the University of Munich, three of the group underwent show “trials” — including Sophie and Hans — and were executed by guillotine. Sophie’s father, who had previously been arrested for calling Adolf Hitler the “scourge of God,” told her how proud he was of them. Hans’ last words were: Es lebe die Freiheit! Let Freedom live!
During the summer of 2020, as riots and gratuitous violence were taking over the streets of New York City, and as left and right battled with each other over who represented the true values of our country, I came across Sophie’s most famous quote: “Stand up for what you believe in, even if you are standing alone.”
It resonated with me. After the publication of my book The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World in 1997, I had been verbally bludgeoned by women’s studies professors for daring to voice two truths: biological differences between the sexes exist, and feminism only means freedom, not a laundry list of political opinions. Pre-internet, they slammed me for heresy in print, on radio shows, and in phone calls in the middle of the night. It was my first encounter with today’s thought police, and it was so ugly I moved from Washington, DC to New York to focus on aesthetics.
In June 2014, I was on Facebook conversing with a large group of friends in the international art world. The terrorist group Hamas had captured and murdered three Israeli teens, starting yet another war. My posts up until that point mostly involved beautiful images. I had never written about Israel or even about being Jewish, but the appalling capture of the three teens struck a nerve. I waited for my more political friends to post something. To my astonishment, those in the art world took Hamas’ side.
To my even greater astonishment, friends I had worked with at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic — liberal Jewish friends — posted nothing. Literally nothing.
I asked a friend of 25 years about it. “Oh,” she said matter-of-factly, “you can’t defend Israel publicly.” And why not? “You just can’t. And if you do, I can’t be friends with you.”
Even though I’ve always been a bit shy, I’ve also always been a proud non-conformist. I began to defend Israel, hoping it would encourage my Jewish liberal friends to do the same. It didn’t. A few even unfriended me because of those posts, and the partners of two of my best friends blocked me. Everything I had experienced in 1997 was happening again.
And all because I dared to tell the truth.
For the next six years, I defended Israel but also classical liberal values. As Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz realized in 2007 when he was being attacked for denouncing terrorism, many on the left were no longer liberal. They had become, in his words, “regressive leftist.” As a columnist for the Jewish Journal, I tried to show how much of modern leftism was illiberal, but nothing mattered: it kept getting worse. Mob justice ruled, forcing cancellations and firings; neo-racism emerged as a state religion.
It also got very personal: because of COVID-19, I was able to hear millennial teachers try to indoctrinate my 11-year-old son.
When the history of this period is written, it will show that there were people who resorted to violence when non-violence would have moved mountains; there were people who resorted to lies when they had the truth on their side; there were people who watched silently when their bravery was needed.
No progress ever stems from lies, violence, and cowardice.
When I saw that Sophie Scholl quote in the summer of 2020, I began to look deeper into what the White Rose stood for and was able to accomplish. What was needed, I thought, was a new magazine rooted in the bravery and moral clarity of those University of Munich students. A publication independent of both parties and thus able to engage in real journalism: reporting the truth and calling out whichever side went off the extremist edge.
We needed to reteach the values of classical liberalism — individualism, heterodoxy, liberty, ethics — because no knowledge of those values can currently be found in newsrooms, classrooms, even the halls of Congress. Finally, I wanted to show why culture in general and art in particular must be depoliticized, and that in fact depoliticized art has the greatest ability to elevate and unite — precisely what is needed right now. I wanted to create a movement that would show how the principles of liberalism and aesthetics align, and why that’s not a coincidence.
“Only the brave write history,” tweeted Hassan Sajwani, when peace was formally established between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last year.
And my goal is the same as those students in Munich: no more silence. Every peaceful opinion deserves to be heard. You’re either calling out the illiberalism or covering it up. Working to liberate or to suppress. Standing up for true liberalism or bowing down to fascism. It’s well past time to revive the bravery of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Golda Meir.
It’s well past time for the rebellion of freedom.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is the Editor in Chief of White Rose Magazine.