Frank Rich, Paul Krugman and others have rightly indicted incitement of murder by Fox News hosts, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Back, talk radio fanatics like Limbaugh, and others, extending over to the Presidential campaign of John McCain (he backed off from it finally) and Sarah Palin. These stations and figures use their influence among white supremacists – a minor force in America today, but capable of assassination - to stir up the murder of Stephen Johns, the black man who patrolled the Holocaust Museum for 6 years, and other innocents. As Rich’s column indicates, they stigmatize of President Barack Obama as a “Muslim,” a “socialist,” a “fascist” or more precisely, a sacrifice to their hatred. That they are on the hunt against the President and others is an horrific fact. It is not tolerance to “tolerate” this. In denouncing this connection, Rich and Krugman have happened on to an old and frightening pattern in fascism and racism, one not often discussed in Cold War social science.
Revolutionaries do not have friends in high places. The American Revolution found no echoes in the colonial administration or the Bolsheviks in the tsarist autocracy or Ho Chi Minh among French colonialists or Gandhi in the British Raj. But racists often do. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson showed D.W. Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. Griffiths originated the film technique of montage: freed blacks holding the Northern carpetbagger’s beautiful daughter; the Christian Klan in its flowing robes riding to the rescue, her fear, their heroism…In fact, after the Civil War, poor blacks and whites had founded the only decent governments ever in the American south until after the Civil Rights movement . Written in the 1920s, W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction relied on reading carefully the minutes of the South Carolina legislature’s debates on extending education to all (professors then employed at white American Universities like Wilson at Princeton couldn’t be bothered to read, and anyway ordinarily preferred the Klan). But anti-racists had shut down a showing of “Birth of a Nation” in Boston. To revive it, Wilson gave his own showing at the White House for members of the elite (the Chief Justice Byrne of the Supreme Court, for example, came). Given the Russian Revolution and a wave of American strikes (the Seattle general strike, the great Steel strike), the elite supported a major reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan across the South and middle West (the Democratic Party was the Klan in Colorado, Missouri and Indiana in the 1920s; Harry Truman, getting his start, in the Pendergast machine in Missouri had to join the KKK). What was by day the Democratic Party in the one party South was by night the Klan. There were 5,000 recorded lynchings in the next 30 years.
In 1919, Mussolini “marched” on Rome. Actually, four fascist demonstrations led by Generals came to Rome, and Mussolini arrived in a sleeping car a few days later. Hitler had widespread support in the German elite – they feared communism and socialism, growing among the workers – and was appointed Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg. Fascism is a mass movement backed at first by part of and then the majority of the elite against movements for decent or radical change from below.
What did Mr. Johns do to deserve his murder? He was a poor man, dedicated to his job, working while black. This is not an unusual occurrence in the United States. It made the SNCC leader H. Rap Brown once say “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” By American, he meant made in high places. It was the oppressed led by Martin Luther King Jr. who made nonviolent civil disobedience a major practical alternative to the violence of the segregated South, of Governors, newspaper editors and sheriffs, and Presidents.
Barack Obama has learned from the accomplishments and the rhetoric of the nonviolent civil rights movement. That showed in his asking Joseph Lowery to give his wonderful statement at the Inauguration: if you’re black, you don’t have to stay back, if you’re brown, you can stick around, if you’re a red man, you can get ahead man, if you’re white, you’re all right…These are beautiful, encompassing and democratic as well as amusing words.
After World War II, the United Nations passed a Convention against Genocide which bars imposing conditions intended to destroy a people, “in whole or in part.” The US did not sign the Convention because it feared that the conditions it imposed on blacks (not to mention those imposed on Native Americans) made it guilty of this crime. Opposing the genocide of the Nazis, it was slow to oppose its own genocide at home. But Brown v. Board of Education and the exigencies of the Cold War created a more favorable environment. The nonviolent movement for civil rights in the South could expect some support from the Courts and the Federal government against rapacious state governments. And after great changes, in 1976, President Carter would finally sign the Convention against Genocide.
The Genocide Convention makes advocacy of genocide a crime. In racist conditions, advocacy of racism is like crying fire in a crowded theater. So advocacy of harm against ordinary blacks or action against President Obama – Jon Voight’s recent speech sadly probably fits the definition – is a crime (so plainly are O’Reilly’s rants against Dr. Tiller; abortion is not infanticide, but Bill O’Reilly is very probably an instigator of the killing of Dr. Tiller). American understandings of freedom of speech unfortunately protect such crimes on the right. But Shepherd Smith at Fox News deserves recognition by all for speaking out against the hatred the station is inciting.
Meanwhile, Obama is sweepingly making things better in America, taking steps for a green economy, eliminating torture, though not yet allowing the torturers to be prosecuted, even making efforts to recognize Palestine and cure anti-Arab racism in the United States. He offers hope of some abridgment of the hostilities between groups nationally and internationally and of intelligent bipartisanship in politics. He is widely popular. But we are in the midst of depression and two wars, one of which Obama appears bent on continuing. Madness lurks in America, including among the privileged. This is, after all, the country that murdered Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (and many others). Whether we can enter the 21st century, even with this remarkable new leadership in Washington, is a question. Obama inspired a mass movement, but has not sought to reawaken it as President. Still, young people especially want to remake the country, to make its life less bigoted toward gays and others, more decent. But we will need a new anti-racist movement from below and vehement, though nonviolent action, against racists, especially in high places, to isolate potential criminals and make a multiracial and international society possible.