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.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

Thoughts on Donald Trump’s America

A couple of weeks ago, criminal and authoritarian Donald Trump lost the presidential election and so spared us four to eight years of looting the treasury and rule by open, unrepentant white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and other assorted menaces to human rights, decency, and lives. His loss probably saved the tattered remains of American democracy for that same span. But white Americans don’t like that sort of outcome. We have had quite enough of this noise about non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-men deserving rights we feel bound to respect. So we made him president-elect anyway. We didn’t all sign on for that, but I suspect most of reading this can remember the last time the loser got to have the presidency anyway. If the American people all counted equally, we would live in a different world. We have a system that insists otherwise, granting tremendous power to mostly white, sparsely-populated states which they use from time to time to tell the rest of us that their dirt and trees count for more than our lives. Should you have heard the term “structural racism” and wondered how that worked, now you know.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Trump ran an openly racist campaign. At least one person vying for any office in the United States runs a racist, but we had norms about that. You chose policies that just happened to disproportionately harm minorities. You signaled your allegiance to white power with a code: law and order, welfare queens, entitlement cuts, small government, tough on drugs. I could go on. We all know what these things mean, but we pretend otherwise and then scratch our heads at how everyone else votes so differently from white America. They just can’t have reasons; only white people can afford those.

Those norms worked to facilitate racist outcomes, just as everything else in our discourse about “race” does. We imagine race as a thing out in the world, like the weather. What can we do about race or the rain? If we talked about racism instead, then we would have to admit that we choose it. We white Americans struck a deal with ourselves. We agreed to put some of the most egregious expressions of white supremacy beyond the pale, in exchange for keeping the rest. We agreed that the Dylann Roofs of the world had no place in our society, except for letting us denounce them and shrug off the far greater number of lives we waste at the stroke of a presidential pen or by carefully filling out the dot on our ballots. That norm didn’t count for much, but we assented to it away only after a great struggle still in living memory. We do not permit open racist intentions in our politics.

So much for that. He lost the election, but because we have a fundamentally broken system which structurally privileges whites above everyone else, the high-rent version of Dylann Roof moves into the White House in January. Scholars of authoritarianism, both the twentieth century German version and more modern, less famous brands have come forward to warn us; they do not do so lightly. They did not turn out for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or Ronald Reagan. He has named a segregationist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard, a man so racist that the Republican party of the 1980s rejected him for a the federal bench, to run the executive department founded to preserve the rights of the freedpeople. He has an anti-semite as his chief advisor. He stands poised to use the American government to enrich his personal businesses, just as the masters of stereotypical banana republics do.

I believe we will have elections in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024; I do not expect the forms of American government to vanish. Putin’s Russia has elections too. They have done nothing to prevent authoritarianism there. We have stronger institutions, but they have endured a decades-long assault. Political parties have the job of keeping out the wildly unqualified and dangerous. They failed. The media ought to serve as watchdogs for our liberties. Instead of speaking of racists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and all the rest, they deem Trump’s friends merely “controversial”. They wonder endlessly how they lost touch with the white working class, as though no other voters existed. In a nation where billionaires can destroy media outlets through the legal system, you don’t need censors. They’ll do the job themselves.

We imagine that democracy ends with a great crash. The world turns gray, the clouds roll in, and everyone forgets how to smile. The real world doesn’t support Mordor or any reasonable approximation. We will not wake up one day and discover that we have moved to in our sleep North Korea. Life goes on. You will probably still have friends and family. Good days and bad will come and go. Most of us will probably not have a mob rush up and clap us in literal chains. Real world oppression doesn’t work like that. It comes on little by little, small adjustments that don’t seem to mean anything. They happen to people far away, on the margins, to the hated. You get used to one and then the next comes. Things once unthinkable become ordinary, even welcome. Maybe something upsets you, but you learn to stay quiet. The rules become clear and we stick to them. We still have something to lose, after all.

You may choose not to believe me, Gentle Readers. I would gain no satisfaction from getting this right. But let me tell you something: back when I went to school, we reserved torture for the heights of villainy. Nazis tortured, not the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States adopted torture as a matter of policy. When news of that broke, we did not unite in horror against it. Instead the administration and its defenders insisted we had done no wrong, redefining the word ‘torture’ to hide its substance and making a matter of human rights into one of simple partisanship. Trump has told us he will resume torture, and then some.

Trump’s surrogates now cite the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent for their proposed national registry for Muslims. They expect us to take that not as a warning, but as a grounding in history they believe we should happily emulate. Come January, we have an administration which promised these things to us. If they come, they will owe their arrival not to surprise or shock, but planning.

Speaking of planning, a national registry of Muslims would serve as an ideal precursor for rounding them up into internment camps. Once we have them there, we might put them to work. If they don’t work, or prove difficult, we have the tools to deal with that too. They have already rolled out informally, as all the Klansmen and neo-Nazis, uniformed or otherwise, understand that Trump’s America has their backs. I don’t know if we will go that far, but we have already crossed more Rubicons than I care to count. The Nazis did not begin with Auschwitz, but with street thugs. They proceeded through roving bands of armed men in uniform, something Americans have plenty of experience with in the form of white sheets. The gas chambers and crematoria came late and killed fewer than those bands.

Don’t believe it can never happen here. This country enslaved four million people and only stopped after four years of bloody war. After it ended, we got almost all the way back to slavery again within twenty years and it took the better part of a century to claw our way back to measures that Reconstruction-era Republicans would have found broadly familiar. We have spent the decades since slowly rolling them back again; we just had our first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans did not kindly die of disease to free up a continent for us. We white Americans murdered our way across it and now pretend the survivors’ descendants don’t exist. Past Americans can only show us theoretical ceilings: we know that we can go this far, but we may do them one better. We should not succumb to the temptation of the barrel’s bottom; it has none. The horrors of our past and present have far more often burned themselves out in a frenzy of self-destruction or yielded to overwhelming external force than they have discovered some long-neglected scruple on their own.

None of us knows what will come, but we should open our eyes to what looks likely. We should take seriously the warnings we have received from survivors and scholars alike. I start with this one:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.

I hope I am alarmed for nothing; being right would give me no satisfaction at all. But here I must remind you what Dylann Roof said before he went on his murder spree:

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

Those words put Roof one paycheck away from giving an official campaign speech. The day before he walked into that church in Charleston, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president with these words:

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.

Roof had only ordinary firearms, themselves all too deadly, at his command. Come January, President-Elect Trump inherits a massive national security apparatus armed with nuclear weapons. We do not have the luxury, for the sake of our lives and those of countless human beings here and abroad, of taking him lightly.