Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Out of the Woodwork

Two friends sent me links this week, one to a speech, one to a documentary, that at first sight had little to do with each other.  One was that speech I just blogged about by Carolin Emcke, about belonging. The other was a recommendation for a film called Hate Rising, which I'll get to in a moment.  It wasn't long before I realized both of these were facets of the same phenomenon, sad evidence that the rats seem to be coming out of the woodwork and there is a sudden rapid increase in hatred in the land.  Lands. What's happening here has a clear parallel in Europe.  Both Carolin Emcke and the documentary deal with hatred and with enablers of hatred.

I watch a lot of German television, thanks to the internet, and that means talk shows and that means I follow the concerns about the new right and the xenophobia unleashed by Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over a million refugees into the country.

Merkel’s decision has backfired on her terribly.  Sitting here on the other side of the world, and not in one of the villages in Bavaria or Austria or Hungary (two other countries acutely impacted by her decision) where the pressures of overcrowding have sparked resentment, I can afford to take the longer view, Merkel’s view. This is a crisis situation. People are desperate, frightened and vulnerable. So desperate that they are literally walking across one country after another to get to what they believe is a promised land.  I won’t get into the debate here, with all the woulda, coulda, shouldas of her policy.  I just want to take note of the backlash, the anger and resentment by people who claim the homeland has been invaded by people who don’t belong, people who are “not like us” and are likely to steal “our heritage” and all that is sacred to us.

Ironically, the loudest howling is coming out of Saxony, one of the parts of the country least affected.  Xenophobes are therefore revealing themselves as just that.  Ask the people in the places where the refugees actually go, and you find grumbling, to be sure, but also a far greater willingness to accommodate a real human need.

Germany has to live with the consequences of World War II.  Even now, two or more generations since the racist policies of the Third Reich, the world gets uncomfortable when Germans show their teeth at foreigners.  (And to be fair, they're far more welcoming than most, if I'm not mistaken. Call it guilt if you're cynical. I see it as a raised consciousness.)  Unfortunately, while there are lots of welcoming folk there are also the Pegida and the Reichbürger types.  Pegida (which stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) was able to draw 20,000 into the streets for a protest in Dresden.  Then there are the people calling themselves the Reichsbürger – citizens of the Reich.  A much smaller band of retrograde twits, to be sure, but making a splash nonetheless.  They are trying to make hay with the fact (the dubious fact) that the “Reich” never actually came to an end.  Modern Germany simply grew up within it, they say.  The Reich is still intact.  Remember “Save your confederate money?”  That sort of nonsense.

Silly as they are, they represent a tendency of people to go tribal, to circle the wagons against an outsider in their midst.  Fortunately, in Germany extremists on the right can’t get away with bringing back the swastikas and the Hitler salutes.  It’s not only outlawed; it’s also beyond the patience of most modern Germans.  So they have to come up with alternatives.  They can’t call themselves National Socialists, which would no doubt be their preferred term, so they come up with Reichsbürger.

White nationalists in the United States have no such inhibitions, legal or social, about expressing sympathy for national socialism.  Hitler was, to most Americans, almost a comic character, a funny man who liked to shout and sputter and prance around like the clown Charlie Chaplin made him out to be.  We reduced him to insignificance not through debate about fascism, but through ridicule.  

Of course, not everybody got the joke. George Lincoln Rockwell managed to form an American Nazi Party in Virginia in the fifties, and they changed the name to the National Socialist White People's Party (NSWPP) in the sixties, in conscious imitation of the NAACP.  (And why do I see a similarity in the impulse to form a White Lives Matter organization in response to Black Lives Matter?)  The good news is that American white nationalists are few and far between, and are not seen as a threat, mostly because they seem to have loser written all over them.The bad news is this is the age of the internet, so they can now get in contact with others of their ilk a whole lot more easily.  No need to pay for gas in your truck to get from Ku Klux Klan headquarters in Arkansas to Yahoo, Idaho to mingle with anti-government Patriot Group survivalist types.  You can do it online.  The wacko Christian Identity group with a membership of about 2000 is now believed, thanks to the internet, to have maybe 50,000 adherents.  Swastika, you remember Dixie Flag, don't you?

Jorge Ramos, on Time Magazine's
list of the 100 most influential people
A new documentary called Hate Rising just came out this week. It features the familiar Spanish language network Univision anchor, Jorge Ramos, whom some people like to think of as “the Walter Cronkite of Latino America. Hate Rising documents the fringe group right-wing supporters Hillary Clinton was referring to when she made the comment about the “basket of deplorables.”  It makes plain she wasn’t speaking idly. 

The brouhaha over her remarks came from the fact that you can’t make a statement like that in public in the United States without having the other side go ballistic.  Whether it's the intelligence level or simply sinister manipulation, I'll leave for others to decide, but it's clear that any statement about a part is taken as a statement about the whole and immediately the fists come up. To win back the folks put off by that remark, Hillary had to apologize.  What I wish she had done was insist, “Don’t misunderstand me.  I wasn’t talking about the many reasonable folks voting for Trump.  I was talking about the fact that he seems to have brought the rats out of the woodwork.  An unusually large number of seriously deplorable people are conspicuous at his rallies.  As a US News & World Report article pointed out in August, "we have a fast-growing, highly motivated group of right-wing extremists who are quite openly saying that their day has come."  The reference is unmistakeable. We're talking about neo-nazis, racists waving Dixie flags, and an alarming number of white supremacists and white supremacist supporters, including Trump himself.”

Ramos, a winner of eight Emmy awards, spent nine months traveling the country and interviewing these folks for the documentary.  He describes his motivation for making the film the time Trump refused to call on him and told him, “Go back to Univision.”  I remember that event and at the time I thought Ramos was a little pushy.  But then he wasn’t being called on, and no doubt I’d get pushy, as I expect any good journalist would, under those circumstances.  Ramos was booted out of the press conference and one of Trump’s men actually said to him, “Get out of my country.”  Since Ramos is a U.S. citizen, “Go back to Univision” sounded to him like just another way of saying “Go back to Mexico.” He had come face-to-face with the fear surrounding the predictions about whites becoming a minority in their own country, a fear often expressed as hatred, and he saw it as a story worth investigating further.  Hence Hate Rising, which appeared this last week on Fusion and Univision.  

Hate groups are nothing new.  Gay people live their lives in constant struggle against organizations of the religious right like the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, organizations with reasonable sounding names which mask a seriously aggressive bigotry.  Twitter reports 2.6 million anti-semitic messages on twitter on the last year.   And the Southern Poverty Law Center, a major clearing house keeping track of hate groups, has produced a map of 892 hater groups – KKK, neo-nazi, white nationalists and skinheads leading the pack ­– across the United States.  
I remember reading somewhere - I think it was Alan Dershowitz – about anti-Semitism in the United States.  Whoever it was was making the point that we need to not push the panic button, not assume that anti-semites are under every rock and behind every door.  Focusing on the positive, we need to remember, he said, that there has been considerable progress in Western Civilization.  In the Nazi era, anti-Semitism was official government policy.  And Jews were barred from country clubs in the U.S., as well.  Today, in virtually every modern democratic state, anti-Semitism still exists, but it belongs to the crazy fringe groups. 
That’s a point worth repeating.  You can be a racist, a homophobe, a sexist or an anti-Semite, but when you reveal yourself as one, you also reveal yourself as a crackpot.  Sane people, decent people, don’t take these stands.
But maybe that’s too optimistic.  Maybe they are all there hiding somewhere, looking for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork.
Watch this documentary.  It’s available on YouTube.  Then take a look at some of the folks speaking out at Trump rallies, and watch Trump's response – or, more accurately, non-response.
There’s the danger, I think.  We all know Trump’s a risk because he knows so little about foreign policy, is clueless about how government works to make and change laws, treats women as playthings, makes statements that are false 80% of the time, has an outspoken homophobe as a running mate and Breitbart bigots running his campaign.  And if you want a longer list, check out Rolling Stone’s “Why Not to Vote for Trump, From A to Z” 

The Crusader - voice of the KKK
But for me there is another important reason, one that has been seriously underrated – the fact that ugliness encourages more ugliness. You can’t be blamed, of course, for everything your friends say about you or claim to say in your name.  But we’ve gone from a time when people who believed “Hitler didn’t go far enough” or “blacks need to know their place” or “Mexicans are rapists” stayed pretty much out of sight, and we all thought the KKK was nowhere to be seen any longer.
Turns out we may have been wrong about that.  All it took was a Donald Trump to bring them out.
Don't believe me?  Consider this.  Previously most fringe groups refused to engage in American politics, arguing they were anti-government and therefore had no horse in its political races. Compare that with the statements being made these days by KKK and neo-nazis and the like that they are supporting Trump for president.
Have a look at Hate Rising and tell me I’m wrong.

Photo credits:
Crusader, official paper of the KKK


1 comment:

Bill Sweigart said...

Thanks for the overview and for the recommendation. I will look at the film right now. One thing does puzzle me a bit: do you really expect that Hillary Clinton could have said, “Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t talking about the many reasonable folks voting for Trump"? "Many reasonable folks"? Had she said such a thing, it would have been totally disingenuous.