You may remember that I urged everyone to take a look at the In Good Faith project that represents a collaboration and a conversation between my Sekret Machines colleague A.J. Hartley (an award-winning, best-selling novelist as well as a Shakespeare scholar) and Kerra Bolton (who has a distinguished history of political and social involvement). That was more than a month ago. Now, with the events at Charlottesville, that project focusing on race seems more important (and prescient) than ever.
If anyone doubts where my feelings may be located concerning Charlottesville, you obviously haven’t read my previous work. I’ve written three books on Nazism alone, and even more volumes on the American political and cultural currents that have contributed to the present state of affairs, plus lengthy blog postings on my website. I am not a member of any political party, in case you’re wondering, but I don’t believe that this issue is a partisan one in the sense of Republican versus Democrat, or conservative versus liberal. It’s not my intention to carry water for a politician or a party but to raise awareness of the context of current events, to “connect the dots” as my work sometimes has been described. But there has never been any ambiguity where my feelings are concerned when it comes to fascism, racism, and Nazism. In fact I hesitated to post anything at all about this because … who needs it, really? You all have been inundated with pundits and jeremiads already. Who needs yet another old white guy’s point of view?
But … if you insist …
Most of you know I was detained by actual Nazis in South America in 1979, that I was threatened at gun point at midnight by a Klansman in Pennsylvania a little later, and debated neo-Nazis in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m no stranger to any of this, unfortunately, and that means I am not fooled by pretentious pseudo-intellectual arguments that attempt to form moral equivalencies between Nazis on one side and those who oppose them on the other.
The recent Vice interview with the weeping white supremacist who said it was his intention to form an “ethno-state” underlines just how intellectually bankrupt this movement is. What is the ethnos to which he refers? Is “white” an ethnicity? A hundred years ago, the Irish were not considered “white” by American racists. The Slavs were not considered “white” by the Nazis. The Jews still aren’t. Where do we draw that particular line? Catholics were considered “papists” and therefore part of the problem, and I still hear white nationalists refer to Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards as “not quite white” (which is interesting considering Mussolini, Salazar and Franco, but who’s keeping score anyway?). We all know what that guy means, though. He means a state where there are no black people, no Jews, no other people of color. That, of course, would only be phase one of his “ethno state”. Phase two means going after the other shades of white on the Klan’s color card. These guys are so fixated on “white” it gives a whole new meaning to that offensive pejorative “snowflake.”
I’m also not fooled by the specious argument that the Charlottesville episode was about freedom of speech and the protection of a historical monument. Jesus. At what point did Robert E. Lee become a Nazi? I missed that somehow. Why did we see numerous swastika flags at Charlottesville, and even shields with the “black sun” motif which is what you find at Himmler’s Wewelsburg Castle? Were the SS at Gettysburg? And why the “blood and soil” chant, and “Jew won’t replace us”? What does any of that have to do with saving a Civil War monument?
And then the apologists (including the president) come forward and make the equally specious argument that a monument to Lee (or Stonewall Jackson) is no different from one to Washington or Jefferson because the latter two men had slaves.
Yes, they had slaves. Isn’t that the whole point?
No one is saying that slavery was a Southern issue only. In the history of the United States (and earlier, before there was a United States) slaves could be found everywhere on the settled continent. Tituba – the woman who notoriously is identified with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 – was a slave, a Native American woman who was taken from the Caribbean and brought to Massachusetts long before there was a United States, before even Washington and Jefferson were born. It is America’s original sin, and one with which we have been struggling for hundreds of years, and especially since the Civil War when one entire group of human beings decided it would fight to keep their presumed right to own other human beings. As the nation came to its senses over this issue, people resisted. And it led to some spectacular violence and bloodshed, and a Southern aristocracy who cherished slavery so much they decided to leave the union rather than relinquish their “property”.
Yes, of course, I realize that the Civil War was more complicated than that and involved a host of other issues: legal, economic, political, cultural, and so on. Yet, at the same time, I also realize that slavery was at the heart of the conflict. Why?
Because it still is.
When those marchers descended on UVA with torches chanting “Blood and Soil”, it wasn’t for states’ rights. It wasn’t because they were misty-eyed at losing a statue most of them – coming from out of town – had never even seen. They were marching for a racist and exclusionist ideology. They were identifying with Nazism and identifying that with the Confederacy. They were making the connection explicit.
And now they are using the “freedom of speech” argument to try to stifle objections from the so-called “left”: which to them seems to mean anyone who is anti-Nazi. That’s the old bait-and-switch, boys and girls: the conceit that if you are anti-Nazi you must be pro-Communist. That was the dilemma on whose horns they tried to impale the United States in the 1930s, when the “America First” movement began. That was the ideology that motivated the Catholic Church to help Nazi war criminals escape, because they saw Nazis as anti-Communist and Communism was – as Sinead O’Connor might say – the “real enemy.” This is a false choice, a binary selection that does not reflect the only options available. You can be anti-Nazi and anti-Communist at the same time.
I think it’s called being American.
As Americans, we don’t pledge loyalty to real estate, or to a specific race or “ethnicity.” Our military and our elected officials (and our naturalized citizens) take an oath to the Constitution. To an ideal. It’s as simple as that. Our other founding document – written by slave-owner Thomas Jefferson – is the one that insists all of us have unalienable rights, and that these include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Slaves did not have any of those rights in the South until the Emancipation Proclamation which dissolved slavery nationwide. Yet the Proclamation was the logical outcome of the Declaration of Independence, once it was recognized that slaves were actually people. Although Jefferson had slaves, he had – consciously or not – penned the sentiment that would be used to free them almost a hundred years later. Does this excuse him from owning slaves? Of course not. That’s not the point. It doesn’t redeem him, but fighting to ensure those unalienable rights for others redeems us.
As we all know, the struggle for racial equality was not over with the Civil War. We had Jim Crow, and we had the rise of the Klan. Then, in the 1930s, we had to deal with a surging tide of pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States which extended to wild assassination plots against FDR and massive Nazi rallies under the auspices of the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirts. We had the spectacle of Henry Ford – Henry Ford – being awarded Nazi Germany’s highest honor available to a non-German because of all the fund-raising he did for the Nazi Party in the 1920s, and the voluminous pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic writings he published during that time. What is more American than a Ford automobile? But even Ford could not get his head around what being an American means. What it requires of us. He thought it meant something about white people and Christians. “Paging Khizr Khan.” (Too soon?)
Yes, it’s difficult. It’s hard to come to terms with this, because it seems counter-intuitive. For many people America is what it was when they were born, what they saw in their own neighborhoods growing up. It’s not supposed to change its racial or ethnic configuration, right? It’s supposed to stay the same. And everyone has to know their place: Blacks in the ghettos and gays in the closets, and invisible to straight whites except maybe for entertainment value. I have news for you, though. No country on earth has stayed the same since at least the dawn of the twentieth century. That is why the concept of “nationalism” of any kind is bankrupt and doomed to failure, especially in America, as long as “nationalism” means “tribalism”, racism, and “just us”.
Is it easy being a real American? Of course not. Being American makes demands of us, challenges us to reach further and farther with every generation. It’s hard work.
“We will go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because it is easy but because it is hard.” Kennedy said that. An Irish Catholic. When was the last time someone inspired you to do something because it was hard? Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? It was; in more ways than one.
We’ve been down this road before, so many times in our history, and if our only strategy is to sigh, bow our heads, and hide behind “freedom of speech” then we better get ready to lose that freedom, too.
Because it happened again, during and after World War Two. And again in the 1960s. We needed a Civil Rights Act because it seemed a lot of people couldn’t read the fine print on the Constitution or the Declaration. We had to reinforce the idea – incredibly, to insist – that black people were people, too – were Americans – and deserved the same rights as everyone else. Why did we have to insist on something so patently obvious? Because we were killing black people. Lynching them. Experimenting on them. Dividing them from white people on public transportation, restaurants, restrooms. This happened in America – land of the free, home of the friggin’ brave – in my own damn lifetime.
And then they killed Dr. King. Hey, that’s part of our history, too. Maybe we should put up a monument to James Earl Ray? Lee Harvey Oswald? Sirhan Sirhan? You know: the “many sides” argument.
Maybe Charlie Manson deserves a statue. Or Ted Bundy. See, you can use the same fallacious arguments as the white supremacists. Once you’re okay with false equivalencies, the world’s your oyster. Or Bob’s your uncle. Or something.
Just to be clear, though: there is no white America. Think about it. Say it with me: There is no white America. There never was. America is not a race, it’s not a religion, it’s not an ethnicity. America is an ideal. A few sheets of paper. That’s it. Read them, understand them. Cherish them. It’s what sets us apart. It’s all that sets us apart. Nazism does not do that (that was a German experiment, one that failed miserably; spoiler alert: they lost the war). White nationalism – whatever the hell that means – doesn’t do that, either. America is not a “white nation.” There is no mention of “white people” in either of our founding documents. No insistence on a homeland for the “white race.” No “ethno state.” The founders happened to be – for the most part – white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants with a whole lot of African slaves. That was how our country was founded. It was evil, but that was the racial mix, even then. And somewhere in the back of their minds the freedom-loving yet oddly inconsistent slave-owning founders came up with the novel idea that all of us are created equal, that all of us deserve the same rights to life and liberty and, hey, even the chance to find happiness. If you deny that, if you refuse to accept that for your fellow Americans, then you are not really an American yourself. Are you? You didn’t read the fine print. You didn’t take the oath.
The country didn’t stay WASPy. It didn’t stay Anglo-Saxon. It was never intended to. I mean, look at all those swarthy Irish people. And the Catholics from Southern Europe and Latin America. The Slavs. The Greeks. The Jews. The Asians. And the Muslims, some of whom were here since the beginning of the Republic. And the Native Americans; what about them? And the slaves: the people who were born free and were enslaved, or who were born slaves, and their descendants now among us, just like the descendants of those who came on the Mayflower are among us, too. And the ones who came through Ellis Island. And across the Rio Grande. That is our history. Our history is all of it. We can’t pick and choose – just like you can’t pick and choose your parents, or your race – but we can address, confront, embrace, and acknowledge it because it has made us who we are. The confusion, the shame, the pride, the murderous blind certainty, the quaking doubt, the trembling fear, the hatred and the love, even the violence and the death. All of it.
It’s not about monuments. That’s a pivot, a misdirection. An act of political prestidigitation designed to distract us from the spectacle of torchlit processions, Nazi and Confederate flags, and virulent racism. But if you ask me (and I know you didn’t!) we can lose the Confederate statues anyway. Who needs them? What purpose do they serve other than the intimidation of our fellow citizens, intimidation that they were intended to provoke in the first place? You want to remember history? Read a damn book. Otherwise, let’s fix this. Let’s live up to our ideals, the ones we inherited as our birthright. It’s time. We’re big enough. We can take it. Well, I can, anyway. Can you?
That’s my free speech for the day. I’ll shut up now.