E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

The Long Reach of American Fascism

I’ve written before that Donald Trump has a past. He has brought back to the forefront of American politics essentially open advocacy for white supremacy, after decades of white Americans pretending they didn’t have any real problem with black Americans. He has undone, at least for this moment, the work of Lee Atwater and his generation of PR men:

That distinction, and some others, do make the Trump campaign unique. We’ve known for decades that when fascism came to the United States it would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. They didn’t tell us it would come in orange with a dodgy comb-over, but then fascists have a history of not living up to their own aesthetic standards; the rules apply to other people. Saying fascism would come also implies that we didn’t have it already. It appears, in fact, that Americans invented the ideology, attitude, aesthetic, or whatever thing one considers fascism best called. Before Mussolini’s train ran on time, the Ku Klux Klan crossed the finish line so early we didn’t have a name for it.

Just as we risk missing the forest for the tree in taking Trump as entirely sui generis, so we do the same in taking fascism in isolation. Fascist movements have never, so far as I know, come to power without cooperation from the mainstream right of their countries. That cooperation came come eagerly or with a general sense of disdain, but it does come. Never Trump never came to much. Nor will the ritual denunciations. We can’t know what goes on between an individual and their ballot, but even if all the famous people declaring they’ve changed parties follow through, they have shifted perhaps hundreds of votes. Had enough of them existed to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination of the mainstream American conservative party, we would have seen it by now.

Trumpism, for all its thuggish bullying, open white supremacy, and admiration of street violence, has precious little but style to distinguish it from past runs for the presidency. I don’t need to dig back into the nineteenth century or root about in the dustbin of history for fringe candidates everybody has agreed, safely after the fact, to hate. If you want bellicose white supremacy in the vein of the murder victim getting what he had coming, take these remarks on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

King, you must understand, brought this on himself. By breaking the law to protest segregation, he produced the violent backlash that claimed his life. He ought to have known his place. The author of that statement then occupied no more exalted an office than that of governor, but he would go on to greater things.

Philadelphia, Mississippi has two claims to national fame. In 1964, the Klan, with help from the county sheriff and local police, murdered three civil rights activists there. I imagine that one doesn’t go on the tourist brochures, but it happened all the same. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, and Michael Schwermer helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. These laws abridged the power of state governments, particularly in the South, to behave abominably toward African-Americans.

Sixteen years later, a presidential campaign rolled into town. The candidate came fresh off his convention win, inaugurating his general election campaign in Philadelphia. I have no doubt that the people of Philadelphia, then and now, run the gamut just like people everywhere else. They deserve a presidential visit as much as anybody. But towns that even today boast only seven thousand or so people don’t have for national office candidates just drop by; I live in a town of ten thousand and we don’t get that. The campaign chose Philadelphia for a reason, and the man behind the podium made it clear just what they had in mind:

I believe in state’s rights.

I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.

And if I do get the job I’m looking for… (Cheers and applause)

I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

You don’t give a speech like this in a place like Philadelphia by accident. You do it because you want everyone to know that state’s rights means white power. The speaker didn’t wear a white hood and chant about the Klan getting bigger, but he didn’t need to. When you go to Philadephia, Mississippi and tell the town that murdered civil rights workers and so convinced the nation to pass laws curbing state power to abridge civil rights that you believe in state’s rights, you tell them that you’ve taken their side. You are no partisan for the victims, nor their cause, but the declared ally of their murderers. If elected, you will do all in your power to roll back civil rights and restore white supremacy’s untrammeled rule to its most murderous extent.

The speaker in question? Revered conservative statesman Ronald Reagan. I don’t see many conservatives, or many white Americans in general, willing to denounce him.

Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.

American Fascism, Then and Now

Once, we lived among giants. We had it better and, to say it plainly, Americans had it whiter. Now small men, and even women, pretend to lead us. How can we endure with such mediocrities? Surely all the good not yet gone must soon perish, unless a new generation of heroes rise to save us all. Someone from outside, someone pure, someone who can break the deadlock and turn back time, must come before the last light of the world flickers out. Pick any metric you like. Americans now distrust political opponents more. We understand compromise as a situation where we get more than we give. Politicians disregard conventional norms in the quest for partisan advantage. We used to come together, but now we draw apart. We disregard civility and replace reason with passion.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant all of those things. Spending some time with the nineteenth century makes present fretting sound more than a bit overwrought. They had a war; we have mostly harsh rhetoric. I don’t mean to play Dr. Pangloss here, pretending that in every way we live in the best possible world. Nor shall I argue that every change to the American political scene has turned out for the better. On some points, though not many, I agree with those wringing their hands. But let’s talk history.

For as long as we have left a written record, people have fretted about their decline from an imagined golden age. You can read it on Sumerian tablets. In recent American discourse, we talk polarization: How can we go forward if we can’t agree on anything? Can the country survive these divisions? Something must give. The example of Republican Rome suggests that a strongman or two will come around, with flagrant disregard for constitutional conventions and strictures, and inaugurate a dictatorship.

I have no better a crystal ball than you do; I can’t tell you that we’ve gone down the Roman road past a point of no return. Nor can I find it in myself to feel any deep sympathy for the Roman Republic. People have mourned its death for two thousand years, always convinced that in their times the fall has come again. To still treat it, after all these centuries, as the acme of civic virtue more troubles than impresses me. Why should we measure ourselves so closely against such a long extinct state? We have other paranoid, superstitious, and genocidal regimes we could admire in its stead.

We might do better to ask not if we have followed the example of Antique Rome, staggering toward Caesar and Octavian, so much as that of Weimar Germany. People invoke fascism as a slur all the time, often with little justification. The more sophisticated will sometimes say that it amounts to nothing more than that slur. The academy once leaned in that direction, but in recent decades scholarship suggests that we should take fascism seriously as its own thing. It differs from both the Left and Right, if dramatically more so the Left. Fascists often deploy leftist-influenced rhetoric, but regularly come to power with the more mainstream Right as a coalition partner. Establishment conservatives disdained Hitler and his Nazis as clowns and fanatics, but cooperated in their rise under the premise that they could control the brownshirt hordes. Once in power, the party did all it could to convince the German Right that it had nothing to fear. The German Left? They would soon have camps for that. In the interim, the Nazis had fists, knives, clubs, and bullets. The same conservatives that cooperated in the Nazi party’s rise didn’t mind that outcome much at all.

Among American laypeople, and I count myself as one on this subject, the rise of the Nazi party rarely elicits much thought. The line runs straight from Versailles to hyper-inflation to Hitler, neglecting that the Weimar government beat inflation back long before the Austrian had a place in the government. Now and then one hears about Nazi theatricality, always with the proviso that the speaker’s own nation would never go for such foolishness. That all nations have their forms of political theater, all of them similarly absurd and frequently just as linked to militarism, rarely enters into it. If we admitted that they can occasionally move us, even cynical bloggers ordinarily repulsed by even far more mild expressions of nationalism, then we would have to also admit that the national character we darkly muse upon exists in ourselves as well as strange countries beyond the sea.

Focusing on the theater lets us ignore the violence in the rise of fascist movements, even as we acknowledge the conspicuous violence of fascists in governance. We remember that violence directed at the people the Nazi regime made its enemies: Jews, Slaves, Roma, Sinti, anybody not heterosexual, the list goes on. Somewhere in the final section, you’ll reach the party’s more ordinary political opponents. Given the scale and intensity of the Nazi campaigns to exterminate the more famous victims, one can’t fault the standard narrative for emphasizing them. But during the Nazi party’s rise they spent far more time in street battles with the German Left, largely in the person of Germany’s communist parties. They and they alone could crush the degenerate forces that had betrayed Germany and deprived the nation of its greatness. They alone could undo the humiliations of Versailles and sweep aside the decayed, failed Weimar government.

To some degree, this language naturally rises from any group that has experienced power and then its loss. White male Americans once had almost all the power the a culture could grant. Now we have less, if not very much less. Most of us don’t like it. The resentment of the those forced to share what they once had all to themselves burns hot and nothing attacks one’s privileged identity more thoroughly than equality. Yet that alone doesn’t necessitate a diagnosis of fascism.

What does make for fascism? Robert Paxton, whose Anatomy of Fascism I draw upon for this, suggests setting aside the rhetoric and looking at fascism as a form of political behavior. I endorse that approach a wholeheartedly when discussing American constitutional theories, so I can hardly object now. Paxton eschews a strict definition of fascism on the grounds that historical fascist movements have, despite their reputations, little interest in ideology as such. Thus he looks for what he calls “mobilizing passions” which push people into fascism:

a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions

One can find invocations of crisis in any culture at almost any time, but Paxton means more than rhetorical discontent or polemical fireworks. A crisis, even a real one, doesn’t in itself cross the line. Rather the crisis must demand solutions, at least in the minds of the believers, from beyond the ambit of conventional politics. Those solutions aim toward a restoration, but don’t hearken back to older methods.

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Paxton concerns himself specifically with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe, but doesn’t entirely neglect earlier movements. Another group of people in a major democracy had that sense of crisis well before the World Wars. In his opinion

It may be that the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some former confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans in 1867 by the Radical Reconstructionists, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in the eyes of the Klan’s founders, no longer defended their community’s legitimate interests. By adopting a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as by their techniques of intimidation and their conviction that violence was justified in the cause of their group’s destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.

The Klan absolutely had the sense of crisis. They unarguably resorted to means beyond the conventional scope of politics to remedy it. So did the Confederates before them, but the Confederates adopted the forms of a normal state in a way that the Klan could not.

the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it

The Klan’s group, aside the organization and allied movements themselves, came in the form of the white race and the white South. That tradition, like many others, carried over into the South that the Klan made and has important precursors in antebellum thought on Southern distinctiveness. Behavior which one would ordinarily not tolerate, even toward other white men, became just in order to save the race and the South from the horrors of abolition and racial equality. The white South’s obsession with genocidal race wars coming on the heels of abolition may imply the same idea, but exertions on that front looked toward forestalling a future crisis rather than attacking one then present.

the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external

That really speaks for itself, but I can’t let it go without noting that antebellum white Southern writing on sectional strife constantly depicted their section as aggrieved and prostrate. A decade of unprecedented victories that came near to overthrowing the very idea of a free state didn’t change that.

dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences

Paxton consistently uses liberalism in the European sense, entailing not American leftism but rather a strong hostility toward regulation of capitalism.

Here too I see Antebellum as well as Reconstruction antecedents. The enslaving class prided themselves, at least for public consumption and in the hoarier parts of the South, on playing the part of the disinterested country gentleman. Some played it straight into bankruptcy. Few Southern writers could compare the sections in the late Antebellum without reference to the North’s cold, brutal capitalism. The South had genteel paternalism, delivered good and hard with every strike of the lash. With the war lost, they had the realities of “alien” influences in the persons of the freedpeople and the small number of white northerners who came South to join the larger number of white Southerners in the effort to make a new section. From the point of view of the former enslavers, they had fallen very far indeed.

the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent of possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary

While I have seen reference to racial purity in Antebellum writing, it more often comes in abolitionist attacks on the sexual exploitation that slavery facilitated than from white Southerners themselves. The Klan surely sought a purer community, by their own lights. The forced inclusion of freedpeople into the Southern community, however marginally and unequally, sent them rushing for the bedsheets and rope.

the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success

The Klan didn’t just lynch people, though they did plenty of that. They made a production out of it. White southerners, and not a few northerners, would keep right on doing that with great regularity for decades. It took only a few people to murder someone, but plenty would turn out to watch, get their pictures taken, and go home with grisly souvenirs. Any group can romanticize struggle, but fascists really go above and beyond.

the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle

Few Klansmen, at least during Reconstruction, would have signed up for that in so many words. Most probably understood themselves as acting in strict compliance with divine law and, until quite recently, the laws of men and nations. Theories of racial supremacy go back well before Darwin, though. If the Klan didn’t understand themselves as engaged in a Darwinian struggle, then they surely would have recognized a racial struggle for dominance in more Christian and traditionalist terms.

I have not studied the Klan as I have the late Antebellum. My knowledge comes up short in particular with some of Paxton’s points which I have hitherto omitted:

the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny

the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason

I don’t know enough about the early Klan’s internal operation to comment on these either way, though I’d be happy to hear from someone who does. The first point in particular sounds much more twentieth century than nineteenth to me.

What does all of this have to do with us? I don’t know any better now than I did some paragraphs ago where the United States shall go, but we should not pretend fascism could never happen here. It might, in fact, lurk just around the corner. It certainly has before, and come around that corner to achieve almost every item on its agenda. American fascism can happen, has happened before, and has succeeded before. We should not forget this, unless we want to see it again.

Klan for AmericansAn American fascism would not come bedecked in swastikas and goosestepping about. It would draw on traditional elements of the political culture, just as European fascist movements drew on their own backgrounds. The Klan, whatever its incarnation, burned crosses. It declared itself once for traditional Southern values and then for pure Americanism. A fascist movement need not create; it shop for symbolism off the rack as well as any. I would expect American fascism to direct its hatred toward Americans it doesn’t deem white, most conspicuously black Americans but also immigrants, documented or not. It wouldn’t give a stiff-armed salute, but would turn the Pledge of Allegiance from an already troubling habit into a compulsory litmus test of one’s humanity. It would come wrapped in the stars and stripes, probably with some Confederate flags handy too. Where Germans talked about the volk, Americans would talk about patriotism.

Have we crossed the line yet? Do we today have a viable fascist movement? The seeds of one exist everywhere. Paxton’s mobilizing passions could, and probably do, beat in all our hearts from time to time. They come from far too deep in human psychology and the experience of living in modern states for us to ever entirely banish them. Any line we could draw would cut across important precursors. Any future twist of circumstance might leave us with more prosaic, if still horrid, authoritarianism. The United States has had tremendous good luck in that a fascist movement has never quite broken through to control of the national government. But the second Klan did run Indiana and Oregon for a time; it might have done better. Marking the point of no return with confidence can only work in retrospect.

Still, I wrote this because I do have an opinion. I worry the most about the legitimization of political violence. The United States has always had some of that, often much more than we’d like to remember. It has mostly afflicted people we consider outsiders and thus dismiss it as nothing worthy of concern, unless we instead took the time to express our approval. But one doesn’t expect a presidential candidate’s supporters to do much more than maybe behave boorishly toward opponents. We had had more than that this year. We seem poised for more. Where by convention we would expect the candidate to disavow such people, we see the opposite.

Donald Trump has endorsed his supporters roughing up the opposition, promising that he has their backs and if he doesn’t get the nomination he wants then riots may ensue. Violence at Trump events appears more often than one would expect for bad luck or coincidence, even if the candidate didn’t encourage it. His people have paid attention. Trump might not really come through for them, but authoritarians always grant their leaders slack on that front.

We might not have gotten there yet. This might all fall apart in the unlikely, but not impossible, event that Trump loses the Republican Party nomination. It might do the same if, as seems likely, he loses in November. I hope it does. But Trump didn’t invent any of this. His supporters will not evaporate if he loses, but will wait for the next person willing to take them all the way. He has, as I said a few weeks ago, reminded any who forgot that white nationalism can take you far in the United States. The last time the Republican party establishment turned on their base’s chosen man for the presidency, Barry Goldwater, his supporters took over the party over the course of the next decade. Given their remarkable successes, we could end up in a very dark place either way.

Demographics may save us in a country producing fewer and fewer whites, but South Carolina mastered King Numbers for decades. Our luck may hold out this time, but it can’t forever. The last big terrorist attack prompted a tremendous lurch toward authoritarianism, from which we haven’t emerged. We have, literally, as a matter of national policy, tortured people. Another attack could easily put us still further over the edge. So could a sudden economic dislocation. The next guy might have better political skills and sell with a bigger smile, something that usually wins over Americans. For at least a decade and a half, the far more conventional politics of the nation have involved much more constitutional pushing and shoving than usual. Now we have a movement boning up on its street violence.

We have had one before; it won.

Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

Reading William Dunning

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Reconstruction scholarship had hit the news this week, with Hillary Clinton giving her questionable take on the matter. Others have written well on her poor understanding of the era and her decision that, finding herself in a hole, she had best try for China. I don’t propose to retread that ground. The customary recitation of the historiography of Reconstruction might do in its stead; it must lurk in any discussion of the topic just as the historiography of every subject does. I will probably indulge eventually, but today I have in mind something off to one side of that.

Back in fifth grade, during the fall of 1991, I read an American history textbook cover to cover. My teacher suggested it. (Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.) Between its pale blue covers I learned a great deal of history for the first time, Reconstruction included. I still remember the sepia-toned drawing of three men with bags over their heads, members of the Ku Klux Klan. My textbook told me that they used costumes to frighten freedmen away from the polls. The book might have mentioned violence as well, but if so I don’t recall it appearing to any prominent extent. I read about scalawags and carpetbaggers. These had something to do with a thing called Reconstruction, which radical republicans launched to punish the South for the Civil War. My book didn’t tell me that in as many words that Reconstruction deserved opposition and we should cheer its failure, but did make it very clear that black Americans lacked the education and character to participate in government. We had it hard in the Bush years; you had to put things together yourself. I didn’t know then and would not know for more than a decade thereafter that I’d just gotten a dose of the Dunning School. Most everyone still gets plenty of them, hence the ritual condemnations whenever Reconstruction comes up.

I make it my habit, partly as a prophylactic, to read good history before bad. As I’ve yet to undertake a serious study of Reconstruction, until now I’ve opted out of reading anything by William Archibald Dunning, his students, and fellow travelers. Today I made an exception when a lengthy article by the man himself came across my twitter feed. Why not let Dunning speak for himself? I can only scratch the surface of even the article without making this post tediously long or once again making an extended departure from Kansas, but it deserves a look all the same.

Dunning makes no bones about his position, laying it out in the opening paragraphs:

the completion of the reconstruction showed the following situation: (1) the negroes were in the enjoyment of equal political rights with the whites; (2) the Republican party was in vigorous life in all the Southern states, and in firm control of many of them; and (3) the negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property, and, since so many of the whites were disfranchised, excessive even in proportion to their numbers. At the present day, in the same states, the negroes enjoy practically no political rights; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.

You could hand this list to Eric Foner or any other modern historian of Reconstruction and see them nod along with the facts, save the highlighted portion. From that axiom, all the rest that makes the Dunning School so notorious follows.

Dunning concerns himself often with the political interests of the Republican party in sustaining Reconstruction. He avoids calling partisan interest the chief objective of the undertaking by so narrow a margin as to almost say the opposite in plain terms:

by the time the process was complete, a very important, if not the most important part had been played by the desire and the purpose to secure to the Republican party the permanent control of several Southern states in which hitherto such a political organization had been unknown. This last motive had a plausible and widely accepted justification in the view that the rights of the negro and the “results of the war” in general would be secure only if the national government should remain indefinitely in Republican hands, and that therefore the strengthening of the party was a primary dictate of patriotism.

One can’t quite argue with the facts here either. A Republican government would hardly seek to redeem the cause of the movement which it just defeated. As most southern whites understood Republicans and freedom for black Americans as both utterly inimical to their interests, they would hardly vote the party of Lincoln handy majorities. They just spent four years engaged in a tremendous war where they spent blood, much of it their own, and treasure to save slavery, save white supremacy, and prevent so much as the possibility of a southern wing of the Republican Party. Consequently, any Republican party in the South must depend on black votes for its support.

If this makes the Republicans less than disinterested, altruistic paragons of virtue then we might as well ask if the majority of white Southerners did better. Dunning takes white supremacy for granted, to the point of understanding it as an interest which whites pursued out of conscious partisanship. This would leave him, at best, declaring a plague on both houses. It turns out that human beings don’t comport themselves with perfect virtue. Who knew?

Dunning makes it clear that white supremacy decided things. He considered black Americans too stupid and ignorant to competently manage politics. He doesn’t quite say that they couldn’t manage even basic freedom, but Dunning clearly had some doubts on the subject. However, he argues that Southern whites had more than racial animus informing them. They tried, if at gunpoint, black governance:

The extravagance and corruption of the state administration had become so intolerable to the whites that questionable means of terminating it were admitted by even the most honorable without question.

Dunning spends page after page on the precise mechanics of how to disenfranchise, most of them clearly amused by the ingenuity they involved. Yet he offers only this single line on the famous corruption that helped justify rolling back black freedom. We must take his word for it.

We must also take his word that violence played only a small part. Dunning admits to lynchings, and wrote in their heyday, but paints violence as the exception rather than the rule:

There was relatively little “Ku-Kluxing” or open violence, but in countless ways the negroes were impressed with the idea that there would be peril for them in voting. […] But if a party of white men, with ropes conspicuous on their saddlebows, rode up to a polling place and announced that hanging would begin in fifteen minutes, though without any more definite reference to anybody, and a group of blacks who had assembled to vote heard the remark and promptly disappeared […] Or if an untraceable rumor that trouble was impending over the blacks was followed by the mysterious appearance of bodies of horsemen on the roads at midnight, firing guns and yelling at nobody in particular, votes again were lost

If we bend over backwards on Dunning’s behalf, we might allow him a technical point. We ought to distinguish between intimidation and violence. We should not go further and treat intimidation as innocuous or, as Dunning might like us to, pretend that black Americans heard only empty threats. They could count the lives lost, the scars left, and see who hung from trees just as well as any white person. A threat might very well remain a threat only when they complied. While some whites might have made idle threats, the record argues very strongly that most spoke in deadly earnest. No one could know with confidence until hazarding it at peril of one’s life whether one had a band of blowhards or the local Klavern just looking for an excuse. The distinction between violence carried out and violence merely threatened thus, at the point when one would have to make the decision, proves fleeting.

All of this led to what Dunning considered the natural conclusion:

The negroes, though numerically much in excess of the whites, were very definitely demoralized by the aggressiveness and unanimity of the latter, and in the ultimate test of race strength the weaker gave way.

The corruption might matter, though Dunning could as well have looked at his own New Jersey or Tammany Hall just across the Hudson for examples of that, but ultimately the whites won. Thus we know for a fact that the superior race prevailed. Winners win and losers lose. Had blacks really deserved equality, they would have raped and murdered their way to it just as the whites did. The fact that whites imagined black men as rapists and murderers nearly by definition and arrayed themselves to combat these simultaneously inferior and remarkably puissant foes brings us to one of the inevitable paradoxes of white supremacy: an inferior race which requires such heroic measures to keep in its place hardly seems very inferior.

Dunning goes on, charting the restoration of white supremacy up to the time of writing. Toward the end he expresses his relief that at last, politics have advanced to the point where white Southerners need not apologize or make excuses for their actions. They can cheerfully state their business honestly and in the open:

the stronger faction, headed by Mr. Tillman, promptly took the ground that South Carolina must have a “white man’s government,” and put into effect the new Mississippi plan. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1895 which applied the “understanding clause” for two years, and after that required of every elector either the ability to read and write or the ownership of property to the amount of three hundred dollars. In the convention which framed this amendment, the sentiment of the whites revealed very clearly, not only through its content, but especially through the frank and emphatic form in which it was expressed, that the aspirations of the negro to equality in political rights would never again receive the faintest recognition.

I don’t know that I can do Dunning’s enthusiasm for the trend the justice it deserves. Dunning never makes his disinterested academic act entirely convincing, but one can almost hear the fanfare sounding in his mind when reading this. He spends paragraph on paragraph, page after page, detailing how white Americans took back from black Americans almost everything they briefly gained. Though Dunning denied the violence, he proudly recounts the trickery, fraud, and legal sophistry deployed over the course of a generation and change to reduce black Americans from at least within sight of political equality to a state near to slavery.

In the end, Dunning unites the past and present:

the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible; that slavery had been a models vivendi through which social life was possible; and that, after its disappearance, its place must be taken by some set of conditions which, if more humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express the same fact of racial inequality. The progress in the acceptance of this idea in the North has measured the progress in the South of the undoing of reconstruction. In view of the questions which have been raised by our lately established relations with other races, it seems most improbable that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal of the conditions which this process has established.

We have come far, if not near so far as we like to tell ourselves. I needn’t delve further back than a few days to find arguments that would make Dunning smile.

The Klansman Wears a Mask

Klan CartoonOne snowy day in very late 1991 or early 1992, my mother parked the car in the lot down by the river. We got out and walked the half block to a decayed movie palace, now almost unrecognizable after four renovations, for one of the first films written for primarily for adults that I recall seeing on the big screen, Fried Green Tomatoes. One of the scenes therein has the spunky women in the 1930s flashbacks confront a man over his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. I no longer have a copy of the film to check, but I recall that he denies it. Like any good Klansman, he wore a mask. She pointed to his singular shoe size as evidence of his involvement. Around this time, I read ahead in my history textbook and learned that the Klan adopted its odd rituals and unique dress sense to frighten “superstitous” freedpeople.

For many years, I did not put the things together. I didn’t think much about the Klan, except as a generic group of villains. My textbook didn’t dwell on what they did to actually scare people, only that they did. In 1999, I took my one class on the Civil War, where the teacher went a bit beyond the syllabus to inform us that the freedpeople could see that Klansmen left bodies broken on the ground or hanging from trees. Their horses made the same marks on the ground as any others, not ectoplasm-filled depressions. Probably most of their victims knew, or could make a pretty good guess, as to just which of their white neighbors stood behind the mask.

You don’t hear much from the Klan proper, these days. It has gone over the past handful of decades from a respectable (to whites) organization of white men bent on defending that most sacred and inviolate of American traditions, white supremacy, from the foreign influences of equality, immigration, and integration to a national laughingstock and whipping boy. If white-robed masses once marched on Washington, now when they gather the police appear to protect them from the much larger counter-demonstrations. The familiar hoods and robes come mainly from the Klan of the 1920s rather than the Reconstruction Klan, but both used masks when they felt necessary.

The theatricality served its purposes, then and now. I suspect most of us remember the Klan, when we think about it at all, as a collection of truly vile human beings known for their odd rituals. We know that they opposed the Civil Rights movement and have a record going back to Reconstruction. We might imagine them as violent, but mainly they have these ridiculous costumes. They offer up to us the kind of evil we most like, the sort from the cliche western where every villain declares himself with a black hat and optional kicked puppy. The Invisible Empire announced itself as something clear and distinct, an evil imagined as a country one could go out and conquer or an army to destroy. It even has the kindness to come down to us as a spent and dead force, around which we can do an unearned victory lap.

This memory, so far as it goes, has more historical evidence to support it than many. The Klan did have silly costumes. When one delves deeper into the subject, the violence takes center stage. Together or separately, they can do what stories of martial valor and romantic, nineteenth century manhood do to the memory of the Civil War and distract one from the reason for the whole affair. The Klan did not congeal out of some abstract desire to do evil by their own lights any more than any other group does. They had a politics, just as the original members had had when they signed up for their Confederate uniforms. Though I’ve called them Klan politics for purposes of illustration and brevity, the Klan did not invent them. That honor probably belongs to largely unknown Europeans in the early Chesapeake who discovered, to their delight, their own whiteness and its lack in others. Whatever the name, its practitioners acted in conscious pursuit of that politics, however random and anarchic their campaign of terror might seem from our remove. Black Americans could not live free; they would make sure of it.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The Klan, as an organization, has seen better days. Its politics have taken a beating too, but not nearly so much as we would like to think. Klan politics had a very good November this year. The Syrian refugees gave my governor, many others, presidential candidates, and congressmen a chance to put join the Invisible Empire. Few demurred. Syrians, as they share part of an address and part of a religion with ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/those murderous fanatics, must embody terrorism to the last particle of their beings. While not African, Klan politics construe the Syrian as similarly other and thus an abomination. In the Twenties, the Slav and the Catholic played the same part.

Hatred of the other in the United States probably must roll downhill to the nation’s most conspicuous other, Americans of dark skin. Even as nineteenth century Americans imagined the Irish as white, if a dramatically inferior sort of white, their racial theories and stereotyping linked them to black Americans. Scholars crafting races measured skulls and affirmed the Irish more apelike, much closer to African than the pure stock variously imagined as Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Caucasian, and in later generations Aryan. Thus it made perfect sense to want them controlled, limited, and ideally out of the country. Irish-Americans soon learned the best way to burnish their white credentials: hatred of black Americans. Solidarity with the victim made you a victim, a race traitor, miscegenationist, or other slur of the day. Solidarity with the white supremacist made you part of the club, at least if you worked hard enough at it for long enough.

The classic form of Klan politics remains, of course. To give that up would surrender the entire edifice and leave one open to charges that one should give up the many pleasures of the centuries spent looting lives. Here too, November proved a banner month. A group of Black Lives Matter activists protested outside a police precinct in Minneapolis. Their concern, as usual, involved the police shooting of an unarmed black person, Jamar Clark. For this crime, three white supremacists arrived at the protest and shot five protesters. Since then, others have cruised by brandishing firearms and racial slurs. The perpetrators, unsurprisingly, had the usual sort of interests and affiliations. They even wore masks. One cannot, short of bringing out the white robes, burning cross, and rope, better embody Klan politics.

Klan for AmericansAnd then we have Donald Trump. Trump does not wear a mask, but when a protester disrupted one of his campaign events the crowd attacked him. Mercutio Southall committed no greater crime than engaging in a protest chant at a Trump speech. Had Trump pulled a Stephen Douglas of legend and told him off. That probably would have made the news as conduct somewhat unbecoming a presidential candidate. Calling Trump boorish barely registers more than looking askance at his coiffure, but people seeking the White House just don’t behave like that. Or so we tell ourselves. But his supporters launched themselves at Southall, shouting racial slurs and attacking with fits and feet:

I got punched in the face, I got punched in the neck. I got kicked in the chest. Kicked in the stomach. Somebody stepped on my hand

The man himself had a chance to distance himself from the altercation. The Donald could have condemned his fans’ violence. We know he likes to speak his mind. He even anticipated that one of his events might erupt in violence should someone try what Southall did. Did he take responsibility? Did he stand up and say that when he ordered the crowd to remove Southall, he did not mean to start a fistfight? Not quite:

Trump was asked to weigh in on his supporters’ actions on Fox & Friends Sunday morning. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “It was disgusting what he was doing.”

Trump supporters have built up a record for this kind of thing. Two men who urinated on a sleeping , Latino homeless man and then beat him credited Trump as their inspiration. He declared 

that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

On twitter, Trump later decided he doesn’t condone violence. Maybe Trump likes to see and sign off on attacks personally, which he could do in Mercutio Southall’s case.

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Trump’s actual response involved segregating the media away from his crowds, which calls to mind how the Chicago Police killed Laquan McDonald. McDonald, running from police, went into a Burger King. There he died, with his killer pumping plenty of extra bullets into the body. This all took place last year, but it took until just now for him to face charges. In the interim, we have learned that the Chicago PD destroyed evidence and intimidated witnesses to protect one of its own. They surely regretted the lack of masks at the time, and endeavored to don them retroactively.

I suspect that I could fill a post with events like these most every month. The particulars would change; we shall not always have Donald Trump to give voice to our national hatreds. But we have done these things for a very long time and show little to no inclination to stop. Instead we take each as a carefully isolated event. None constitute a program. None tell us much about the nation. None of them have a politics. They just happen, no more to do with us than the wind and rain. We cast ourselves not as purposeful agents participant in a culture, but as the perpetually innocent and bewildered. Even people with clear white supremacist ties shooting black protesters, or even just ordinary people in church, doesn’t seem like an act of terrorism, though such behavior comes as routinely in our history as elections.

And why would it? Terrorists do things we disagree with. We respect the masks their Klan politics wear. We must, as we wear the same ourselves. To reveal them reveals us.

I have used the first person plural through this and began with a personal story, because I must include myself. The most deadly act of terrorism on American soil took place in 1995. A skinny white guy, in conjunction with another and probably some others that the FBI didn’t find enough evidence on, parked a truck full of fertilizer and gasoline next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It exploded, as he planned, and killed 168 people. On hearing this, the day of the attack, I consulted the roll of media stereotypes in my head and assumed we would watch a band of Muslim men with beards. I did as told; as I had been trained for all my fourteen years. I too wore the mask.

We don’t have to keep wearing it. Federick Douglass used to introduce himself to crowds as the possessor of stolen goods; he stole his body. He had little choice in the matter; we insisted. We imagine we have little choice in the matter, but we also insist upon that. Most of us will never make history. We live ordinary, boring lives. Given the sort of excitement that features in notable lives, you can’t really blame anyone for taking a pass on historical fame. Maybe even all together we couldn’t turn this thing around, take off the mask, and do any better than we have. Maybe even if we did, we have arranged things too well to ever fix. We do things every day that we cannot undo.

We also do things which we say we cannot undo because we do not want them undone. We put on the mask to hide things we don’t want seen. Once slavery seemed permanent too, impossible and even inconceivable to end. Now few of us make excuses for it. The mask works for wearer too.

King, Stone Mountain, and the Pablum Past

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

If you go down to Georgia you can see the kind of landmark that traditionally gets Americans excited. We have the biggest bas-relief in the world carved into the north face of Stone Mountain. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have seen some of the artist’s other work. From the park viewing platform, Mt. Rushmore makes an impression. I imagine that the carving on Stone Mountain does as well, what with Stonewall Jackson, Robert Lee, and Jefferson Davis all on horseback with hats over their hearts. Both carvings depict small pantheons, great men worthy of having their memory literally etched in stone. A reasonable person looking at both would understand that the monuments communicate just that: the creators found them so important that they went people for centuries hence to know and admire them. To look upon their works, take them as your example, and live according to their values, would ennoble and elevate you and your society. To forget them would lesson us immeasurably. One does not, after all, carve people one considers unimportant or unpleasant into the side of a mountain.

Stone Mountain has not avoided the criticism that other such monuments have faced in the months since the Charleston shooting. Nor should it, given both its prominence and the fact that the second Ku Klux Klan first met there. Its massive size, however, renders some of the reasonable remedies impractical. We cannot relocate the carving to a museum. Nor does it seem likely that we shall manage some kind of contextualizing display of similar prominence. Sandblasting it away sounds reasonable, but unlikely to happen. What could the state of Georgia do, blast out the other side of the mountain and carve a giant bust of Frederick Douglass? Not exactly. Douglass had very little to do with Georgia, just like the three Confederates, but the state does have a worthy equivalent in Martin Luther King, Jr. The state thus proposes

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

When I first heard this, I thought it a step in the right direction. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, of license plate fame, came out with an unintentional endorsement:

This decision by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is wholly inappropriate in that it is an intentional act of disrespect toward the stated purpose of the Stone Mountain memorial from its inception as well as a possible violation of the law which established the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and charged it with promoting the mountain as a Confederate memorial.

An intentional act of disrespect towards celebration of the Confederacy sounds pretty good to me. The SCV continues:

The erection of monuments to anyone other than Confederate heroes in Stone Mountain Park is in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.  The park was never intended to be a memorial to multiple causes but solely to the Confederacy.  Therefore, monuments to either Michael King or soldiers of any color who fought against the Confederacy would be a violation of the purpose for which the park was created and exists. The opinions of the park’s current neighbors and opponents are of no bearing in the discussion.

This requires a small bit of unpacking. I understand that the environs of the park have undergone a demographic shift since the carving. Maybe once upon a time they could boast of the kind of whiteness you would expect of the local Klavern. Given regular Klan rallies took place on the mountain into the 1950s, that could make for less a metaphor than literal truth. Now the neighborhoods that Jackson, Lee, and Davis oversee have a black majority. If that makes pilgrimages to the site by the SCV a bit uncomfortable, they could console themselves with the fact that the mountain preserved in its own way a vision of white control that they appear to value greatly. Black opinions don’t count.

The reference to Michael King comes from an old smear. The story goes that King answered to Michael from birth. Somewhere along the way he decided that he needed a more impressive name and cynically chose Martin Luther. He never changed his name legally, just one way in which everyone “knew” him for a fraud. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., held that both he and his son got Michael put on their birth certificates out of confusion. They always went by Martin. If this sounds a bit wild to us, we should keep in mind that there remains no obligation to use one’s legal name in all things so long as one doesn’t intend fraud by it. Consistent use of Martin hardly sounds like the act of a mountebank. Next the SCV will tell us that King had an obsession with white prostitutes and worked as a trained operative for the Communist Party to incite servile insurrection.

The SCV goes on:

Furthermore, the erection of a monument to anything other than the Confederate Cause being placed on top of Stone Mountain because of the objections of opponents of Georgia’s Confederate heritage would be akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.  Both would be altogether inappropriate and disrespectful acts, repugnant to Christian people.

No one would want to put an unwelcome flag atop the King Center, as everyone would understand it as an expression of dominance over the memory of King by those who oppose all he stood for. Likewise, those who want to put a King monument atop Stone Mountain want to repudiate its Confederate legacies and replace them with something better. If the SCV sees these positions as equivalent, then it has told us more than it probably intended about itself.

The local NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference weighed in on the King monument as well. Doubtless some in the SCV will take their opposition as proof that no racial animus plays into the SCV’s own. They would only need to neglect the reason for the opposition and the SCV has told us that black opinions don’t matter to it, so the maneuver must come naturally. Just as we would not follow Jefferson Davis’ example, so we do not need to take our cues from the SCV. Therefore, I present the reasons:

“The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP. “It’s an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols.


“Why are governments spending tax dollars to preserve monuments of hate?” asked [SCLC president Charles] Steele. “And more so, why put any reference of Dr. King, one of Georgia’s most favorite sons, anywhere near these three traitors?”

They have a very strong point, which has moved me from considering the King monument at least promising to a poor idea indeed. Having King celebrated in close company with the Confederate pantheon would prove very good for their resumes, but not so much for King’s. To put King in their company implies that they deserve it and that King would welcome them. The SCV perceives the same dynamic, but the other way around. To them, associating King with the Confederates would sully the brave white supremacists in gray and elevate him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I see no way out of that dilemma. Putting the two symbols together in the same context asserts a sympathetic connection between them. We should admire both similarly. It looks and feels fair on first examination, but doesn’t actually work that way. Fairness toward symbols necessitates fairness toward what they represent, which one cannot adopt without accepting the cruel, violent, rapacious works of white supremacy done under their banner or reduction of one or both symbols to utter meaninglessness. We have enough secular saints that we refuse to learn from even as we pretend to celebrate them. We have already done too much to wipe away King’s cause and the resistance to it in favor of a pablum past.

Deprived of its controversies, that “history” has nothing to teach us. It asks us to confront nothing and question ourselves not at all. If we lived in a perfectly just society, and always had, then that might not make for much of a problem. But no civilization has managed that yet. Without such an unparalleled achievement, clinging to the pablum past makes us not neutral but rather partisans for both past evils and their present day continuations. We should remember Martin Luther King, Jr., faults and all, but we should also remember him as a man white Americans feared and hated just as much as they celebrated him. White Americans jailed him and his supporters. They beat and killed civil rights activists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to drive King to suicide. These facts do not go away because we pretend otherwise.