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First Roger Waters, Now This: Germany Places American C.J. Hopkins Under Investigation
An American playwright faces jail for two vanished tweets. Q&A with the author about his ugly present, and our probable future.
It’s become axiomatic that the United States “lags far behind” Europe when it comes to hate speech law. Everyone from Joe Biden to would-be disinformation Czarina Nina Jankowicz to New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger have suggested the United States needs to move more in Europe’s direction, toward stricter rules and “illegal hate speech,” which “you will have soon also in the U.S.,” as European Commission Vice President for Values Vera Jourova put it at the Davos conference this year.
It makes sense. After all, who’s for hate speech? What possible downside can there be to disallowing expressions of racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, transphobia?
C.J. Hopkins can answer that. Following a similar case involving Roger Waters, the American playwright, Substack contributor, and editor of Consent Factory has been placed under investigation by a Berlin prosecutor for tweeting an image of his book, The Rise of the New Normal Reich. A scathing criticism of global pandemic policy, his cover features a white mask with a white swastika you have to squint to see:
According to German authorities, the author through this image is “disseminating propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization.”
Here are some other books legally on sale in Germany:
As was the case with Waters, the Nazi imagery in C.J.’s book is used to make a satirical point. Unlike the Waters case, there’s absolutely nothing in C.J.’s outside-of-text history that even theoretically could be used to argue hidden/dangerous subtext.
“It would take all of about 20 seconds of anyone looking at my actual work to see how absolutely opposed I am to anything resembling, totalitarianism, fascism, authoritarianism, anything,” he says.
I first read C.J. at the outset of the Russiagate scandal, when from the amusing Statler-and-Waldorf remove of expat life he wrote witty columns about how far off the rocker America had fallen. A terrific comic prose stylist, he ripped our culture for obsessing over “Putin-Nazis,” noting the new Russophobia was just “a minor variation on the original War on Terror narrative we’ve been indoctrinated with since 2001.” These columns are worth a re-read. C.J. was ahead of me, Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté, and others in seeing how Trump-era propaganda campaigns deranged the population.
We had uncomfortable correspondence after Covid-19 hit, when I wasn’t so sure we were dealing with the same kinds of official lies this time, and worried about the wisdom, say, of writing “pandemic” in quotation marks. I rolled my eyes when I saw him cite an old quote from Hermann Goering, saying, “All you have to do is tell [people] they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” But he placed it astride this real quote from California State Senator Richard Pan, about “anti-vaxxers”:
These extremists have not yet been held accountable, so they continue to escalate violence against the body public… We must now summon the political will to demand that domestic terrorists face consequences for their words and actions.
In hindsight it’s incredible how many of us swallowed the notion that people who didn’t take the shot were “terrorists,” and needed the incentive of ever-harsher “consequences” to repent of their “violence.” That this was more religious movement than science was hard for some to see at the time. The tell eventually was that none of the messaging relented when details about the inefficacies of the vaccines came to light. Only a few were willing to say anything about this. C.J. was one, and even if you don’t agree with all he says — style-wise he often conducts literary operations miles behind hyperbolic lines — he said a great many things that were true and needed hearing. Now, he’s looking at charges for doing so.
One thing The New Normal Reich is not is a celebration of Nazi imagery. Hopkins is taking current governments around the world that used the pandemic to assert sweeping power and comparing them to Nazi rule. Here’s an example, from a column called “The Germans are Back!” in November 2020:
On November 18, the German parliament passed a new law, revising the so-called “Infection Protection Act” (“Das Infektionsschutzgesetz” in German), that formally granted the government the authority to issue whatever edicts it wants under the guise of protecting the public health…
Now, this revised “Infection Protection Act…” is not in any way comparable to the “Enabling Act of 1933,” which formally granted the Nazi government the authority to issue whatever edicts it wanted under the guise of remedying the distress of the people. Yes, I realize that sounds quite similar, but, according to the government and the German media, there is absolutely no equivalence whatsoever, and anyone who even suggests there is… “a neo-Nazi conspiracy theorist” ... or whatever.
In no way does this kind of passage “further the aims of a former National Socialist organization.” It compares the current German government to Nazi Germany. The current German government in turn is openly validating that comparison by criminally investigating C.J. for the critique.
What’s more dangerous than outlawing hate speech? Giving someone the authority to define hate speech. Germany has already jailed one lockdown critic (Michael Ballweg, arrested in a dubious fraud case), while microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi was taken to trial — acquitted, but still — for describing Israel as worse than Nazi Germany. The Roger Waters case investigates clearly satirical imagery. Set all those cases aside, however. C.J.’s situation is, openly, a case of a government seeking to criminalize criticism of itself, the dumbest and least defensible version of censorship possible. At the very least, other writers should be taking his side, and journalists should bring this case up anytime anyone even thinks about claming the United States is “lagging” behind Europe on the speech-law front. I spoke with Hopkins about his situation:
Matt Taibbi: This is pretty scary. How are you doing?
C.J. Hopkins: I’m all right, all things considered. I wrote in my piece today that it’s kind of a joke, and it’s not. I’ve got a good German lawyer now, and the lawyer’s going to be dealing with the Berlin State prosecutor, so that’s a big relief. Other than that, I’m basically just angry.
Matt Taibbi: Appropriate! Has anybody else raised any attention to your case? Other journalists, writers, artists?
C.J. Hopkins: Not anyone who has a really big megaphone. There are a lot of websites that repost my stuff when I write them, OffGuardian is one of them. They put a thing up. That’s about it. And some people on Twitter have done it, but no journalists… I copied one of my tweets to a lot of German journalists. Haven’t heard a peep.
Matt Taibbi: How did you first find out about this? What was the sequence, did they contact you in writing?
C.J. Hopkins: Got a letter in the mailbox:
I was heading out to take my afternoon walk and do my shopping and that popped up in the mailbox. There’s a letter from the state prosecutor of Berlin notifying me that I am under investigation for — I think I’ve got it memorized by now — “disseminating propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist Organization.”
You know, German is already a pretty difficult language. So try German legalese…
Matt Taibbi: What does it mean to be informed that you’re under investigation? In America, they wouldn’t have to do that. Obviously they would just investigate and then you would be told you were indicted or not. So what’s the difference and what’s the next step?
C.J. Hopkins: The way it works here apparently is that you get this letter, and the state prosecutor is notifying me that I’m now under criminal investigation for these charges, and then I have a chance to respond. They give me two weeks to respond to this notification. That’s what my lawyer is going to do. He’s going to file a response, which is basically a motion to dismiss — that’s the way Americans would understand it. It’s my chance and my lawyer’s chance to write to the prosecutor and say, “Okay, these charges are ridiculous and here’s why.” The prosecutor will consider that response, and then they will decide whether to go forward with the prosecution or not.
Matt Taibbi: They’re giving you a hard time about the content or the cover?
C.J. Hopkins: It’s two tweets. I don’t know what the tweets are because they haven’t produced them… The tweets I think have been removed from Twitter, so I can’t find them. It’s not clear whether the tweets are the full cover of my book, or just the artwork of my book. For example, like ZeroHedge just put on the piece that they just ran about the story. Anyway, what they’re charging me with or investigating me for is basically disseminating something with a swastika on it. And the weird part about it is, of course, you’re allowed to display swastikas in Germany for certain purposes. For historical purposes and what have you. You’re not allowed to display them if you’re a Nazi or neo-Nazi. But promoting Nazi ideology, of course, is exactly the opposite of what I was doing. But the part of the law that they cited states exactly that I posted this image in order to further the aims of a Nazi organization,
Matt Taibbi: But you’re certainly not enthusiastic about Nazism anywhere, are you?
C.J. Hopkins: I’m laughing because it would take all of about 20 seconds of anyone looking at my actual work to determine how absolutely opposed I am to anything resembling totalitarianism, fascism, authoritarianism, anything. The book is not comparing Germany to the Nazi regime. The name of the book is The Rise of the New Normal. Yes, I wrote about Germany. I live here. I also wrote about the U.S. I wrote about the U.K. I wrote about Australia and New Zealand, and the “New Normal” is the way that I’ve referred to the whole phenomenon that started in 2020. This is a global phenomenon. It’s not specific to Germany. But yes, I wrote a number of articles specifically about Germany because I live here.
Matt Taibbi: But one could interpret this as the German government being upset at being so compared? No?
C.J. Hopkins: That’s exactly the way that I interpret it. If anyone with even a mid-range IQ were to glance at my body of work for 20, 30 seconds, they could determine my intentions and where my sympathies lie. The only way that I could interpret this, Matt, is as intimidation, bullying.
Matt Taibbi: Lastly, you’re a playwright by profession. How has all of this affected your relationships with people in like the theater world? Is there anything left of those relationships at this point?
C.J. Hopkins: Nothing . It was one component of the massive heartbreak that I experienced over the last few years… Basically 99% of my old theater friends, theater colleagues, some of them just went silent and disappeared. Others I had huge fights with and falling out episodes with. The way the arts community and the theater community has reacted to all of this is just absolutely heartbreaking.
Matt Taibbi: This is a particularly important issue for theater, isn’t it? What they told people about the transmissibility of the virus had a massive impact on attendance and the ability to put on plays. Wouldn’t you think that there’d be a little bit of a re-think from people who were affected?
C.J. Hopkins: Well, you know about Tim Robbins. When Tim Robbins out and said those things on your site — “I was guilty of everything I came to understand was not healthy,” and “We’ve restricted people from working for too long,” that sort of thing — bless him. It was really important. He’s the exception to the rule. You’re talking about how it affected the theater. A lot of my plays are experimental plays, avant-garde plays, whatever you want to call them. There was a company, a British company, that did a revival of my oldest, best-known play, and they toured it in the U.K.. They took, took it to Australia recently.
They were on the verge of being completely destroyed. You know, the original UK tour that they had scheduled was to open in March of 2020, and boom, they were this close to bankruptcy. So many small theater companies went through it. Really this is the lifeblood of the theater, this is where the new ideas for the theater are created. This is where the fresh blood comes from. So many of these small theater companies, which struggle to survive normally, they get by on a shoestring, and they were crushed. I think part of the problem is, Matt, the entertainment business and the theater world, it’s a world that is dominated by fear. Everyone in the business is so terrified of alienating anyone or offending anyone who’s going to then mention it to someone’s agent who’s going to have drinks with some casting agent and producer, and then they’ll never work again.
Matt Taibbi: So, in that atmosphere, you couldn’t have your name being dropped – people would treat it’s as if it’s radioactive.
C.J. Hopkins: Absolutely.
Matt Taibbi: If in the eighties or nineties or the seventies, an American citizen in Europe had been criminally investigated for a speech offense, that would be a news story in America. Are you surprised at all that this doesn’t attract attention in the States?
C.J. Hopkins: At this point? I’m not surprised. It’s really sad that I’m not surprised… I’ve been watching this for years. I’ve been writing about it and I’ve been called a conspiracy theorist for it. It doesn’t shock me anymore. It is standard operating procedure at this point.
Matt Taibbi: C.J., thanks for talking to me. If I understand correctly, we’ll get some news within a few weeks? You’ll keep us in the loop?
C.J. Hopkins: I will. Thank you.