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The third wave

/ 04:30 AM May 23, 2022

In April 1967, California teacher Ron Jones was asked during a discussion on Nazi Germany: how could the German people stand by and claim ignorance and noninvolvement as Jews were slaughtered and put in camps, and the dictatorship took over?

Jones decided to explore the question. One day, he introduced his sophomore class to one trait of Nazi Germany: the beauty of discipline. He commanded them to sit with proper posture and moved to do speed drills and noise drills. Sluggish participation in class was reprimanded until each student was a model of punctuality and respect, resulting in a new level of classroom engagement. This was Jones’ first point: that there is “strength through discipline.”

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The next day, Jones talked of “strength through community.” He spoke of the value of community, which must be experienced to be understood. He asked students to repeat the mottos “strength through discipline” and “strength through community,” fostering a sense of belonging. He created the “Third Wave” salute: the cupped right hand on the right shoulder. Beach waves, he said, travel in chains, with the third wave being the strongest. The students began to salute each other in and out of class, fully immersed.

On the third day, Jones talked of “strength through action.” He emphasized the beauty of doing everything to preserve one’s community. He prohibited non-Third Wave students from entering. He gave students member cards, told them to recruit, and assigned three secret police to report noncompliant students. Participation would merit an A; dissent would merit an F and banishment to the library.

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Jones received reports from 20, not three, students. One student, a loner who had never excelled academically, became Jones’ self-appointed “bodyguard,” suddenly a big man on campus. One dissenter was outcast and banished with an F. Jones made it “illegal” for party members to congregate in groups larger than three outside class, to avoid rebellion. Students experienced a climate of fear; rumors about dissidents abounded; trust began to erode.

On the fourth day, it was “strength through pride.” Jones told the now 200 members that the Third Wave was a nationwide movement to train a youth brigade “capable of showing the nation a better society through discipline, community, pride, and action.” He said, “we can change the destiny of this nation. We can bring it a new sense of order.”

He turned to three girls in his class who had questioned the Third Wave and banished them. He, then, announced a rally for the next day, for Third Wave members only, to be covered by the media and press, where a Third Wave presidential candidate would announce himself on TV.

On the final day, at the packed auditorium for the rally, Jones faced a silent audience. He demonstrated to the “press,” friends posing as journalists, the strength of the training: they repeated the mottos and the salute.

He switched on the television while the audience waited with bated breath. They saw only an empty channel. Minutes ticked by in tense silence until one despondent student said, “There isn’t any leader, is there?”

Jones turned to the students and told them the truth: there was no national movement.

“You have been used. Manipulated … You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying.” He told the students that they had bargained their freedom for the comfort of discipline and superiority, that feeling of belongingness. “You chose to accept the group’s will and the big lie over your own conviction … where were you heading? How far would you have gone? Let me show you the future.” And he showed them a film about the Third Reich.

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Over time, the Third Wave has catalyzed discussions about history, ethics, peer pressure, fascism, and psychology, and has inspired book, theater, and musical adaptations. As I prepare to go on leave as a columnist, I am writing in an environment that’s not so different from Jones’ classroom. Where many, being deceived, thrive on the feeling of united superiority. Where there is a silencing of dissent by ridicule or by punishment, and legitimate criticism is tagged as disruptive or dangerous; where fact is swallowed by propaganda. There, too, is an emphasis on unity at the expense of personal freedoms, and fear has led to the erosion of trust. Small men thrive on the power to punish dissidents without fair trial. We are faced with the same ominous disillusionment: History repeats itself, bolstered by numbers and manipulative authority.

Today, we continue to demonstrate how easy it is for any of us to become those Germans, who for their protection and comfort, silenced their convictions and curbed their questions even as they saw events escalating. I wish the truth-tellers and critics of the next years the best of luck and a turning of the tide.

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TAGS: Hints and Symbols, Kay Rivera, Ron Jones, The Third Wave
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