As we panic over refugees …

Tending to wounded Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis. (Photo from Twitter)
Tending to wounded Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis. (Photo from Twitter)

 

… This is happening:

Feds: White supremacists plotted to attack synagogues, black churches

The Washington Post reported, just a few days before Paris, on a plot by a group of Virginia white supremacists who intended to purchase land, stockpile weapons, and train for a coming race war. Two men were charged with attempting to buy guns and explosives from FBI agents posing as illegal arms dealers.

And it gets better. According to the FBI affidavit:

“[Robert] Doyle and [Ronald] Chaney and others known and unknown to the FBI, ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith,” alleges a five-page affidavit from FBI Special Agent James R. Rudisill. Asatru is a pagan religion.

Rudisill wrote that in September the FBI learned that Doyle and others were going to have a meeting at Doyle’s house “to discuss acting out in furtherance of their extremist beliefs by shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues, conducting acts of violence against persons of the Jewish faith, and doing harm to a gun store owner.”

It would be comforting to think that this sort of thing is unusual in the United States, but the reality is more unsettling. Since 9/11, right-wing extremists have been responsible for nearly twice as many deaths in the United States as have jihadists.

I wrote back in July that while our popular imagination conjures up terrifying images of ISIS militants around every corner, terrorism in America is far more likely to look like angry white men with guns than black-clad jihadis. And it is still true.

Late last night, five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot and wounded in Minneapolis by what witnesses described as a group of white supremacist gunmen who had been earlier taunting the crowd of demonstrators. Police are searching for three white men in connection with the shooting.

So keep this uncomfortable truth in mind as you watch Donald Trump spew racist bile on the campaign trail, and as Chris Christie tries to rekindle his failing campaign by exploiting a climate of fear by invoking memories of 9/11.

Dr. Seuss: Propagandist, racist, American

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seuss 4Theodore Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss — published his first children’s book, the charming and whimsical And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Streetin 1937, followed a year later by the equally delightful The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. By 1940, as World War II was engulfing Europe and Asia, Dr. Seuss, as he was already  known, had turned to drawing political cartoons. By 1942 he had devoted his work to aiding the American war effort.

That work is astonishingly racist.

This always comes as a shock to my students. For them, as I suspect for nearly all of us, Dr. Seuss is a beloved children’s author and illustrator, the creator of the Lorax, and of Horton, the keen-eared elephant who hears a Who, and the Grinch, who in the end learns that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

I show my students examples of Seuss’ wartime artwork as part of our exploration of the ideological foundations of American foreign policy. In his brilliant book Ideology and US Foreign Policy, historian Michael Hunt argues that a belief in the hierarchy of races is one of the three fundamental ideas at the core of our conduct of foreign affairs. “Inspired by the struggle of white Americans to secure and maintain their supremacy under conditions that differed from region to region,” Hunt writes it is the oldest of these ideas, deeply embedded in how Americans think about ourselves and our place in the world.

I read Hunt’s book for the first time as a graduate student, and I have assigned it to my own students ever since so that they too can wrestle with the ideas that shape our foreign policy. Race is perhaps the most powerful of those ideas.

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As Hunt writes, the 17th and 18th century folk wisdom shared by our founders, their contemporaries, and passed down to subsequent generations, a system of belief which placed those with the lightest skin atop a hierarchy of races, was reinforced in the 19th century by “scientific” investigation which purported to confirm the physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority of those with darker skins.  “Blacks above all others,” Hunt argues, “served as the anvil on which Americans forged this notion of racial hierarchy and the attendant color-conscious view of the world.”

While our treatment of Americans of African descent served as the baseline, these ideas were also manifested in the genocide of Native Americans as the infant United States expanded westward, and later as we acquired the trappings of overseas empire in the Spanish-American War that ushered in the 20th century. As we became more active and assertive in international affairs, encountered other peoples, other nations, the baggage of race was our blueprint for how to relate, how to respond.

Anglo-Saxonism, says Hunt, “the belief that Americans and the British were one people united by uncommon and common interests,” occupied the central place in our thinking about race as it related to foreign policy. Germans, as our racial cousins, like us save for their loss of the love of liberty, followed closely behind. But from there it was all downhill, from the Slavs to the “Latin” peoples of Europe (France, Italy, Spain), to the deepest, darkest depths of savage Africans, fit for nothing more than white domination.

The people of East Asia, Japan and China, enter the American consciousness in the last half of the 19th century, seen as an exotic bundle of contradictions: “subhuman yet cunning, unfeeling yet boiling inward with rage, cowardly and decadent yet capable of great conquests.” And so Americans developed two different images of “Orientals,” a positive one, Hunt writes, “appropriate to happy times when paternalism and benevolence were in season,” and a negative one, suited to those tense periods when abuse or aggrandizement became the order of the day.”

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The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these contradictions on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins.  Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.

The key point I am making isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a racist propagandist. He was. But he was no outlier. The attitudes on display in his wartime cartoons were the attitudes shared by his fellow Americans. They were attitudes passed down over the centuries from one generation to the next. They were attitudes that turned the war in the Pacific into the most brutal war Americans had ever fought, one which culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb on cities populated by people we viewed as barely human. They are attitudes which we have inherited today.

Dr. Seuss was a racist, a propagandist. And American.

Confederate flag update: Hypocrisy watch

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The flag still has its defenders. (USA Today photo)

By a vote of 37-3, South Carolina state senators voted this afternoon to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house. The measure moves next to the state House of Representatives, where it must also pass by a two-thirds majority before Republican Gov. Nikki Haley can follow through on her promise to take the flag down.

Despite the lopsided vote, there were still some interesting moments from the Senate debate, courtesy of Sen. Lee Bright. While others have pointed out how the good state senator used the opportunity to launch into an anti-gay marriage rant, another of his remarks caught my attention.

Bright argued that calls for the removal of the flag were being driven by an emotional reaction to the misuse of the flag by accused white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who had posted online photos of himself wrapped in the Stars and Bars before slaughtering nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month.  Said Bright:

I’m more against talking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high.

I wonder if the senator is just as careful not to blame an entire people for the acts of a few when the terrorism is carried out by those who claim to be Muslim.  Somehow I doubt it.

 

Context is everything

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I wrote the other day about the Confederate flag and the renewed controversy over that symbol in the wake of the mass killing by a white supremacist terrorist in Charleston, S.C. I want to revisit the topic briefly to try to make a few points more clear.

I accept the argument that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol, but I want to continue to argue that it is more than just that, and like any other symbol, context is key to our understanding of its meaning. So let me present two visual examples to try to make the point.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Confederate cemetery in Marietta, GA. In this context, marking the grave of a soldier killed in the war, I struggle to read the flag as a hate symbol. I see it here as a recognition of an individual’s sacrifice in a long, brutal struggle, even if we cannot today know the motivation for which he fought and ultimately died. We cannot know whether he was an eager volunteer or an unwilling conscript. All that we can know is that he was one more victim of a war which has defined the American experience in ways positive and negative.

In this context, the flag represents history and memory, not hate. It should continue to fly in such a setting. I see this as akin to and consistent with President Obama’s perfectly reasonable admonition that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.

The second example, below, is by now a familiar one. It is the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse, and while all the other flags were lowered to half staff to honor those slain at Emmanuel AME church, by state law this one can never be.

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In this context, the symbolism of the Confederate flag is painfully, obviously clear. It is a statement of defiance against racial equality and forced desegregation, and of longing for a past in which one group of humans could legally own another group of human beings. As this excellent article from the The Atlantic makes absolutely unmistakeable, in this context the Confederate flag is a symbol of proud, unabashed racial hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy.

The Confederate flag has no business flying over the offices of any level of government in any state, especially in South Carolina, and especially today. And so I join the voices of those who call for it to come down.

But let it remain where it today belongs. In cemeteries, at war memorials, historic battlefields, and yes, museums. It needs to continue to fly in such contexts to remind us of how far we have come as a people, and how far we still have to go.