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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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Today marks the 47th anniversary of the massacre at Kent State.

The governor of Ohio called out the National Guard after students may or may not have vandalized the ROTC building on campus. The students were protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. In those benighted days there was no love lost between students and soldiers in uniform, despite the fact that some of those soldiers had been drafted against their will.

So calling out the troops was a homicidal gesture. Someone among the guardsmen began to fire on the students. There is still controversy over whether anyone gave the order to do so. Four students were killed and several others wounded.

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Ten days later a similar event occurred at Jackson State in Mississippi. Police opened fire on students, and 2 young men were killed while 12 other students were wounded.

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I was 27 years old in 1970. I participated in anti-war protests when I was in college, well before such activities became so dangerous that “they can’t kill us all” became an anti-war slogan. Vietnam was an especially egregious war, given that the United States started it for political and commercial reasons.

I have remained staunchly opposed to war throughout my long life. I’ve never seen the sense in settling financial or strategic differences by means of the slaughter of young people. After long reflection, I have come to believe that wars are started by old men in order to shore up their manhood. But it is young men (and now women) who are killed and maimed by some old guys’ desire to swing his dick around yet once more.

Consider this image of the Mother of All Bombs, which Trump dropped on Syria for no discernible strategic reason:

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Or this insightful image of Slim Pickens from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”:

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I rest my case.

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I know my reader(s) may be bored by easy or trite comparisons of Trump to Hitler, particularly when such comparisons are made by people who don’t know much about history. However, serious historians have begun to make this connection, and that is cause for concern.

I spent most of yesterday reading Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), a fascinating study of the many explanations that have been offered for the rise and maintenance of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. Scholars (and cranks) have been arguing ever since 1945 about how Hitler got away with mass murder, not to mention wrecking most of Europe before he was stopped by the Allied armies.

Historians divide Hitler explainers into two broad groups: functionalists and intentionalists. Intentionalists, obviously, believe that Hitler and his minions devised a detailed program that they nearly succeeded in carrying out: to conquer most of eastern Europe for Germany and, in the process, to kill every Jew they could get their hands on. Functionalists, on the other hand, paint with a broader brush, suggesting that the German people (and sometimes the peoples of other countries) were complicit in allowing the Holocaust and other atrocities to happen. This complicity is usually explained by antisemitism, but I think it might also be due to non-ideological and more basic human traits such as greed, or, more generously, fear.

Rosenbaum is an unapologetic intentionalist. He makes a strong argument that Hitler had decided upon the so-called “Final Solution” very early on, perhaps as early as 1918. He cites recorded remarks from 1922 where “Hitler spoke of hanging Jews from lampposts until he exterminated them all” (378-79). Holocaust deniers like David Irving point out that nobody has ever found indisputable evidence that Hitler actually gave the order for the Final Solution, but Rosenbaum assembles enough evidence to convince me that Hitler’s aim from the get-go was to wipe out all the Jews he could find. (I’m not sure why Irving is so determined to protect Hitler by assigning blame to his minions. But then, reflecting for a moment on Trump’s supporters, I see the same dynamic at work, as in “Dear Leader can do no wrong.”)

This morning as I was reading reviews of Rosenbaum’s book I came across an essay he published in the Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year, wherein he makes the connection between Hitler’s “esoteric” thought and Trump’s rhetoric. Here is Rosenbaum:

“But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values. . . .What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. . . . The playbook is Mein Kampf.” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/normalization-lesson-munich-post).

Trump apparently claimed at one point that he had a copy of Mein Kampf by his bedside. That does not mean, of course, that he actually read the book, or even that he was telling the truth about possessing it. In this analysis Rosenbaum displays rather more respect for Trump’s intellect and vision than I am willing to grant. Nevertheless I respect his explanation:

“Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They ‘normalized’ him. . . . And so they allowed him and his party back onto the electoral lists, the beginning of the end.” Later on, Rosenbaum characterizes this move as the most disastrous political decision of the twentieth century.
I’m sure that Rosenbaum intends his readers to apply the image of the “Chaplinesque clown” (if not the “sleeping serpent”) to Trump. In any case these images aptly describe the various masks that propelled Trump into office. And even though most of his followers are not exactly original thinkers (Rosenbaum calls Trump supporters “nitwit racist thug antisemites”), some of his minions are smart enough to make use of Trump as a handy idiot if, indeed, he is as dim as he seems to be.
Thinking along these lines, I can’t get Rosenbaum’s line out of my mind:  “democracy destroying itself democratically.”
 

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The Way It Wasn’t

U.S. Navy sailor Glenn Edward McDuffie kisses a nurse in Times Square in an impromptu moment at the close of World War Two

This is of course the iconic American image of the celebrations that erupted when World War II ended.

This and other celebratory images clutter up my mind when I think of that war as well–soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima, Robert Mitchum in uniform, allied planes flying over France on D-Day, photos of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill smiling after they’ve divided up the spoils, and so on.

I suppose it’s understandable that an American child might remember the war in this way–as a succession of images celebrating her country’s victory.  I was born in 1943, two years before the war ended in Europe. My father was too old to enlist, although according to family legend, he tried mightily to do so. I had no brothers, and my sisters were teenagers during the war. They later told me engaging stories about rubber shortages, ration cards, and collecting tin cans to donate to the war effort.

So I have been a spectator to World War II, imagining it through movies, photos, and family stories. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I began to read about Hitler and fascism. I’m not alone in doing this, and the reason why will be evident to anyone who is paying attention to current events.

In the course of my reading I’ve been forced to confront the horror that descended on Europe between 1933 and 1945. Reading Richard Evans’ history of the Third Reich and its well-planned, carefully-administered murder of millions of people, there have been moments when I’ve had to put down the book and go for a walk. At moments like these, one doubts whether one wants any longer to be a member of the human race.

Yesterday afternoon, as if to confirm the horrors I was reading about, I looked at images of the destruction:

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This photo depicts a small town in Germany after the allied invasion. There are thousands of pictures of the war and its aftermath on the net. They show bombed-out cities, bodies piled up along roadsides, ruined gardens, dead farm animals–almost more destruction than can be borne. After seeing these, my attitude toward the iconic photo has changed. I notice that the buildings are intact, and that everyone in the picture is fully dressed and well-fed.

And while I’m thinking about relative privilege, I will confess that I’ve often wondered if the nurse in the photo actually wanted that kiss.

 

 

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Last night I tuned into Bill Maher’s show in order to watch some liberals discuss current events (a rare thing on teevee). The assembled politicians and journalists had fun with the Rethug health care fiasco that came to an ignominious end yesterday morning.

And then Bill invited another guest onto the stage: Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale. Now Prof. Snyder is not just any history prof. He has published a dozen books; he holds an endowed chair; he is a member of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum; and his work has won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hannah Ahrendt Prize, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, among others.

In other words, Professor Snyder is an accomplished student of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He has just published a book entitled On Tyranny, and he tried hard to interest Bill’s guests in what he knows, given his long and serious study of tyranny in action. He  listed the first three of his rules for combating tyranny, to wit:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.

Professor Snyder sees evidence that the Trump administration is trying to break these rules. Indeed, one could read the slavish devotion of Trump’s voters as a sign that the first rule has already been breached. The professor was in the middle of an interesting discussion with Chris Hayes about the necessity of defending our political institutions when Maher decided to turn the conversation back to fun and games.

I was disappointed. As it happens, I am currently about halfway through one of Professor Snyder’s books: Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning (2015). This is not an easy read but I am sticking with it because Snyder is telling some truths about the Holocaust that we don’t ordinarily hear. For once thing, he has convinced me that Hitler was not only an anti-semite;  rather, he was a thoroughgoing racist who believed that every human on earth was inferior to Germans.

The entire point of Hitler’s ideology (and later his politics) was to enhance and finally achieve the purity of the German “race”; the point of his war was to clear enough land so that Germans could multiply throughout Eastern Europe (and beyond, if they managed that). Hitler despised the Jews because he thought they were people of ideas rather than action, and to his way of thinking it was ideas, such as equality and freedom, that kept the German people from fulfilling their natural task: to spread over the earth, taking it by force, and multiply. This is what the Nazis meant by their slogan”blood and soil.”

More to come.

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This morning someone on the TV machine said that Trump’s supporters don’t actually care what’s in the proposed health care bill; what they really want is to repeal Obamacare. IOW, Trump’s voters harbor such fierce resentment toward a black president and the people he tried to help that they are prepared to vote against their own best interests. This is why the so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives wants only to repeal the bill and won’t discuss any possible repairs that could be made to it.

I suggest that such sentiments are motivated by an identity politics that polite commentators call “ethnic nationalism.” The Urban Dictionary has a handy definition:  “The belief/pride in an ethnic group, based on cultural and genetic makeup. Ethnic nationalists often strive for autonomy of their specific ethnic group from another ruling nation.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with ethnic pride–I like St. Paddy’s day parades and the dancing and food at Greek festivals as much as the next person. It’s the autonomy stuff that bothers me, especially when that is combined with a notion of superiority. When these elements are present, as they are in the thinking of many Trump voters, I prefer to call ethnic nationalism what it actually is:  white supremacy.

To illustrate:  a couple of days ago Steve King (R-Iowa) suggested that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The frightening scenario painted by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale flashed through my mind when I heard this, and I suddenly realized that white supremacy explains why conservatives are so against abortion and contraception. Duh–sorry to be so slow in making this connection. Here I thought all along that they were were just protecting male dominance. Nope! They are also afraid that whites will soon be outnumbered by those “others”–you know, the non-white people who are mooching off Obamacare.

So, white women! Quit going to school and working all the time and start fucking! We have to keep up!

Does all of this sound drearily familiar? Well yeah. But it has taken on a newly ominous tone for me because I am reading Richard Evans’ monumental history of the Third Reich. In the first volume, which is about the rise of Nazism, Evans writes: “The fundamental problem for Nazi women . . . lay in the Party’s ineradicable male chauvinism, a conviction that women’s role was not to take part in politics but to stay at home and bear children” (2003, 213). But this stance was not motivated merely by “male chauvinism,” to use Evans’ quaint term. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum (living space) was to repopulate the lands east of Germany (Poland, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and even Russia) with “racially pure” folks after the Nazis had exterminated the Jews and other undesirables who lived there. So even the women who were attracted to Nazism were sent home to procreate because of the fear that still haunts insecure white men: they’re out to get us!

Today that same fear motivates white guys who stand on street corners showing off their abs while waving American, Confederate, and Nazi flags, and who cheer murderers like Dylan Roof. More ominously, white supremacy also motivates people to bomb Muslim houses of worship, overturn monuments in Jewish cemeteries, deface African-American churches, and attempt to bar a variety of  “undesirables” from emigrating to America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Comparison

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Woodrow Wilson shepherded the country through WW1; he was also prex when women achieved the vote. FDR got the country through a horrible depression by means of several progressive bills and programs–social security was one of these. He also saw us through WW2. He can’t easily be forgiven, though, for the incarceration of Japanese-American families.

My folks were enamored of Harry Truman, who established the Marshall plan to help Europe recover from the war, and who was instrumental in the establishment of NATO. He advanced the cause of civil rights for African-Americans by desegregating the armed forces and forbidding discrimination in federal hiring. But history has not been kind to the man who dropped atom bombs on innocent civilians.

Now we come to prexes that I remember. JFK had promise and joie de vivre, although the Bay of Pigs was a stupid error that brought us to the brink of nuclear war. (It’s not quite fair to blame JFK for this–he was probably misled by the CIA). In his short time as prex Kennedy furthered the cause of civil rights, although unevenly, and put in motion the plan to put a man on the moon. And he sure did class up the place.

LBJ was a superior wheeler and dealer: he installed Medicare and passed a voting rights act and the Civil Rights Acts against the wishes of the southern members of Congress. He was my hero for a time, and then he went and got us mired in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter brought environmental consciousness to the country well before this was mainstream; Thugs did everything they could to deter him, including endless mocking of the sweater he wore in the White House in order to encourage Americans not to waste energy. He was cheated out of re-election by Thugs who arranged an illegal deal with the Iranians to bring home some American hostages.

Bill Clinton presided over and encouraged the tech boom;  he brought the country out of a recession and into prosperity. He might even have passed single-payer health care, had he and his wife not been hounded and hounded by the Thugs, who impeached him, unsuccessfully, for having sex with a willing intern.

And you know all about Obama’s achievements: bringing the country out of yet another Thug-caused recession/depression, and passing the ACA, both of which achievements occurred before the Thugs took over Congress and stymied him at every turn. He did manage to appoint two tough women to the Supreme Court, free thousands of people from prison who were over-charged for small crimes, and, like Clinton, Obama created more federal lands to protect them from mining and logging.

Now I can hear you saying to yourselves:  “Doc, we know all this. Why are you repeating this history?” Because I want to compare these presidents to the Thugs who came in between them.

After LBJ came Nixon, who extended the war in Vietnam (ie he committed treason) in order to defeat the Dem candidate for prex, and who resigned to avoid impeachment for actual crimes and misdemeanors, like breaking and entering. He was followed by Gerald Ford, whose greatest accomplishment was to pardon Nixon.

Then came Reagan, who announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered by the Klan. CLUE PHONE for those paying attention: Reagan and his goon Lee Atwater (Reagan’s Steve Bannon) did their level best throughout his presidency to set back the cause of civil rights. He also busted the air controllers’ union, thus marking the beginning of the end of unions in this country. He illegally trafficked weapons to conservative insurgents in South America, although there is some doubt about what he knew about this program, given that he was in at least the early stages of dementia during most of his second term.

Then the Thugs gave us Bush the first. This Bush, who was probably hip deep in Iran-Contra and lied about it, gave us Clarence Thomas. Then there was Bush the second, who brought us Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld who in turn most likely gave us 9/11, along with war with Iraq and Afghanistan, torture, Alberto Gonzales, Sam Alito, John Roberts, and finally, the Great Recession.

That is to say, Thug presidents in my lifetime have been a dreary catalog of cheats and inepts.

And now the Thugs have given us the Hairball.  The End.

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pyramid-b-kilbanNow we’re down the rabbit hole!  This morning the Hairball’s captive spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, disagreed with those who counted people attending his inauguration. She had the chutzpah to claim that the media relied upon “alternative facts” to make their count. To his credit, moderator Chuck Todd blew a gasket when he heard the phrase “alternative facts” (you can watch at MSNBC’s website).

Back in the day when I was still doing heavy scholarship, I often drew on the work of Jacques Derrida. Now Derrida was often accused by (conservative) literary critics of authorizing an “anything goes” attitude toward reality. The irony of this claim was that Derrida’s work was steeped in historical detail and fine-tuned historical analysis.Using history both as source and illustration, he argued that one’s reading of reality is–must be–influenced by one’s point of reference;  that is, judgements about reality are colored by one’s immersion in history, both a personal history and what can be known of larger histories at any given moment.

Derrida’s analysis, then, suggests that claims about “what is” always need to be adjudicated and/or adjusted. This is why there are histories of history. For example, we can trace the evolution of historians’ treatment of the Middle Ages, which has now moved away from characterizing this period as “Dark,” a reading adopted by Renaissance thinkers who wished to distinguish their era from that which preceded it. Or take the case of the history of American slavery, whose historians have slowly and quite recently come to appreciate the role played by black people in securing their own freedom.

Yes, I am describing a relativism. But it has both feet firmly planted in what can be known. Another way to think of this epistemological position is to compare such thinking to the claims made by science. Scientists base their work on careful and repeated study of the natural world. Still, given the limitations imposed on them by perception, the available equipment, or their operative assumptions–whatever–they long ago decided that their work would be more sound if they relied upon observations made by other qualified people in order to accept or reject it.

Hence scientific knowledge evolves, just as history does.This is pretty much what’s necessary given human limitations.

Such embedded relativism is VERY DIFFERENT from lying, which is what Conway was doing this morning. A person can lie out of ignorance–that is, because she does not have access to relevant information and interpretations. When honest people are asked to make judgements based on ignorance, they say something like “this is my best guess” so they can’t fairly be accused of lying. The only other way to lie is to knowingly misrepresent what happened. The point of doing this, of course, is to hide the truth. As far as I can see, there is no way around this conclusion (see how it’s done?) Anyone who suspects that lying has occurred has to look for a motive–why is is necessary to cover up, erase, give an alternate explanation, in this case?

The obvious answer (to me at least) is that for immediate political gain, Conway and her lying-ass cohort want to make the Hairball look more popular than Obama, more popular than he in fact is. On a larger historical level, however, they are doing the sort of dirty work that in the past has shored up authoritarianism and autocracy.

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