Tag Archives: history

The Nazi Salute…Really?

Students at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis are at the center of a controversy created when they posted a picture showing them making Nazi salutes to social media.

According to the Indianapolis Star,

Students at a private Indianapolis high school are in trouble for making the Nazi salute at the end of a class segment on the German language. It’s the latest example of intolerance and anti-Semitism at area schools….

The photo — taken in a World Languages classroom at Cathedral High School, a private college preparatory school on Indianapolis’ northeast side — shows 15 students holding the German flag and some raising their arms in the Nazi salute, a gesture used during German dictator Adolf Hitler’s reign, usually followed by some variant of the phrase “Heil Hitler!”

When the photo triggered a public outcry, officials of Cathedral released a statement saying, in part “We are having a meeting about cultural awareness with these students and their families regarding the poor choice they made in the picture and how offensive and hurtful this can be.”

Well, sorry, but “Heil Hitler” goes considerably beyond “offensive and hurtful.” Try ignorant and hateful.

I use the word ignorant advisedly, because if I had to guess, I’d attribute this incredible incident to Cathedral’s failure (shared by far too many schools, public and private alike) to actually teach their students history, among other subjects necessary to informed participation in civic life.

A few days ago, several people posted a video to Facebook showing a series of “person on the street” interviews conducted in New York’s Times Square. The young people who were stopped were asked questions that should have been no-brainers: “what countries fought in World War II?” “What was World War II about?” “Have you ever heard of Hitler?” To say that the answers were dispiriting would be a massive understatement. (If anyone has the link, I’d appreciate it; I couldn’t find it, and it really needs to be seen to be appreciated.)

Here in Indianapolis, as elsewhere, the Jewish community–through organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council–holds annual events intended to educate the broader community about the Holocaust. Survivors–all of whom are now quite elderly, so their ranks are thinning–are made available to speak to student groups and civic organizations. There are books and films and memorials, all with a single focus: to bear witness to Nazi atrocities, in the fervent hope that “never again” will human beings visit horrors of this magnitude on other human beings.

These efforts, however, require fertile ground in which to take root and promote understanding. An uneducated, uninterested and unaware population is impervious to such undertakings.

The best we can hope for in situations like the one at Cathedral is to discover that these young people had no idea what the Nazis did–that they acted out of ignorance rather than bigotry and hatred, and that some mandatory education might open their eyes to the evil they were celebrating.

If not–if they were aware of what the Nazis did and what the salute conveyed–they are frightening harbingers of a new dark age to come, and we are all in trouble.

There’s a reason that many of us who do know our history see incidents like this, and watch voters respond to Donald Trump’s blatant appeals to racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism (he “tells it like it is,” he isn’t “politically correct”) with cold chills and foreboding.

Santayana said it best: those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.


It’s Not Just a Card–It’s the Whole Deck

Speaking of the “race card”….

As Donald Trump has continued his march toward the Republican nomination, pundits and political historians alike have tried to explain his emergence. One of the most cogent of those explanations appeared in the Guardian, in a lengthy, well-researched article tracing the trajectory of racism and political calculation in the United States.

After describing the events leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the article referenced Lyndon Johnson’s well-known quote:

“I think we just gave the south to the Republicans,” he told his staff after ramming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. His aide Bill Moyers recalled the moment in more drastic terms: Johnson feared he had delivered the south to Republicans “for your lifetime and mine”, a prediction whose proof, while not yet conclusive – we are happy that Mr Moyers is still with us – has trended ever since toward prophecy.

Fast-forward to Nixon, and the “southern strategy.”

What was needed was white backlash with a kinder, gentler face. Years later, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, by then an operative in the Reagan White House, would explain the essence of the “southern strategy” to an academic researcher:

You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger’.

The article details how Nixon refined the strategy and Reagan perfected it. It also describes  the way in which the GOP “establishment” used that racism to distract from a more plutocratic agenda–engaging in a “bait and switch” operation that won elections and then ignored the base that delivered those victories.

Enter Donald Trump.

While the other Republican contenders keep their xenophobia within the bounds of acceptably cruel political discourse, Trump blows it out: his racist rants play like full-fledged operas compared to the dog-whistle stuff, shredding the finely honed code that’s worked so long and so well for the GOP establishment. But that’s why the base loves him; he feels their rage.

Paul Krugman has an abbreviated version of that same history in a recent New York Times column.

How does a party in thrall to a basically unpopular ideology — or at any rate an ideology voters would dislike if they knew more about it — win elections? Obfuscation helps. But demagogy and appeals to tribalism help more. Racial dog whistles and suggestions that Democrats are un-American if not active traitors aren’t things that happen now and then, they’re an integral part of Republican political strategy.

Krugman takes up where the Guardian leaves off, and completes the history of the southern strategy.

During the Obama years Republican leaders cranked the volume on that strategy up to 11 (although it was pretty bad during the Clinton years too.) Establishment Republicans generally avoided saying in so many words that the president was a Kenyan Islamic atheist socialist friend of terrorists — although as the quote from Mr. Rubio shows, they came pretty close — but they tacitly encouraged those who did, and accepted their endorsements. And now they’re paying the price.

For the underlying assumption behind the establishment strategy was that voters could be fooled again and again: persuaded to vote Republican out of rage against Those People, then ignored after the election while the party pursued its true, plutocrat-friendly priorities. Now comes Mr. Trump, turning the dog whistles into fully audible shouting, and telling the base that it can have the bait without the switch. And the establishment is being destroyed by the monster it created.

If we’re lucky, America won’t be destroyed in the process.

In Memoriam

The end of a year is a time for contemplation–for considering how the world has, or has not changed, and evaluating the apparent trajectory of our social institutions…for considering who and what has been lost….

In that vein, I share this quotation from Theodore White’s Making of the President: 1960. I came across it again recently, and was struck by its current relevance.

Read it and weep….

The Republican Party, to be exact, is twins and has been twins from the moment of its birth—but the twins who inhabit its name and shelter are Jacob and Esau: fratricidal, not fraternal, twins. Within the Republican Party are combined a stream of the loftiest American idealism and a stream of the coarsest American greed….

[I]t is forgotten how much of the architecture of America’s liberal society was drafted by the Republicans. Today they are regarded as the party of the right. Yet this is the party that abolished slavery, wrote the first laws of civil service, passed the first antitrust, railway control, consumer-protective and conservation legislation, and then led America, with enormous diplomatic skill, out into that posture of global leadership and responsibility we now so desperately try to maintain.

The fact that all this has been almost forgotten by the current stylists of our culture is in itself significant. For until this century and down through its first decade the natural home party of the American intellectual, writer, savant and artist was the Republican Party. Its men of state and diplomacy were, as often as not, thinkers and scholars; and it is doubtful whether any President, even Wilson or the second Roosevelt, made the White House so familiar a mansion to writers and artists as did Theodore Roosevelt (who, indeed, was also one of the founders of the Authors’ League of America).

The alienation of the Republican Party of today from the intellectual mainstream of the nation stems, actually, from the days of Theodore Roosevelt. For when in 1912 the twins of the Republican Party broke wide apart in the Roosevelt-Taft civil war, the “regulars” of the Taft wing remained in control of the party machinery, and the citizen wing of progressive and intellectual Republicans was driven into homeless exile.

An exile within which we remain, nearly 60 years after this was written.

Despite the fact that I consider myself an optimist, I doubt very much that 2016 will see a return to reason and moderation.

The United States desperately needs two sane, adult political parties. We don’t have them now, and the prospects for the near term are not promising.

No, All Attention Isn’t Good…

There’s an old political saying to the effect that publicity is always good, as long as they spell your name right.

Not so much.

There’s been a lot of attention focused upon Indiana Governor Mike Pence as a result of his RFRA signing and his obvious inability to understand the blowback or handle the subsequent fallout. But aside from generating increasingly serious concern about the damage done to Indiana, the weighing in by pundits and the skewering by late-night talk show hosts, the controversy has also encouraged media exploration of the Governor’s past performance and policy positions–and that exploration has underscored Pence’s deeply-rooted animus to LGBT folks, his contempt for women’s rights, and…how to say this?…his less than adequate analytical skills.

In the wake of the eruption over RFRA, I’ve seen the following:

A 2008 article about Pence’s bizarre 2005 proposal to advance Social Security privatization.  Here’s the first paragraph:

There are very few members of congress with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to discuss a substantive matter of public policy. But as it happens, one of them — the one with whom I’ve had the second-longest exchange — is Mike Pence (R-IN) who I’ve seen on television today repeatedly discussing the Republican Study Group’s “plan” for the financial crisis. And I can tell you this about Mike Pence: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The man is a fool, who deserves to be laughed at.

The remainder of the article explains how the author came to that conclusion–and explains a lot about the “growth” policies the Governor has been pursuing in Indiana.

Then there was “Smoking Doesn’t Kill and Other Great OpEd’s from Mike Pence, which I originally thought was a joke, but apparently isn’t. It reproduces several op-eds penned by Governor Pence over the years; my favorite was on climate change, where Pence wrote that CO2 from burning fuels can’t cause increased global temperatures because they are a “naturally occurring phenomenon in nature.” (He also mixed up India with Indonesia.)

Perhaps the most telling–given the Governor’s protestations to the effect that he doesn’t believe in discrimination– was this article, detailing his long history of anti-gay bias. From Business Insider, no less. That one begins:

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) apparently previously advocated far more controversial positions on gay rights than his state’s controversial new “religious freedom” law.

One thing about the Internet. Nothing ever disappears. But they did spell his name right.

Conserving Our System

What passes for political discourse these days is so debased, so irrational, that we no longer even think about the real meanings of the words we throw around. So “socialist” is conflated with “Nazi” (and used without any obvious understanding of what the term describes) and “conservative” is used to describe positions that are anything but.

To be conservative is to “conserve”–to protect elements of the past.

E.J. Dionne makes the point that today’s self-described conservatives are really radicals bent upon a wholesale abandonment of settled aspects of our national life.  It’s an important column, and well worth reading in its entirety.

Now, there are times when wholesale change is necessary or advantageous. There are other times when dramatic, radical reinvention is profoundly harmful. In a democratic system, it is up to the voters to decide whether they want to replace what they have with something radically different. But in order to make that decision, voters need to understand what is really being proposed–and in an era where propaganda has displaced much of the news, where a pitiful minority know enough about America’s history or constitutional system to recognize the magnitude of the changes the current GOP field is advocating, the significance of the 2012 election is not obvious to many–perhaps most–voters.

What was that old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times?

We’re there.