Tag Archives: James Madison

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

Terrorism’s Tools

The hits keep coming.

Pipe bombs mailed, churches and synagogues targeted, young people once again mowed down by armed, unstable individuals…Last Sunday, the New York Times devoted several pages in its Sunday magazine to the phenomenon of homegrown, white rightwing terrorism (and the government’s failure to track it), and Time Magazine headlined a story “Why Terror is Rising in America.”

Both reports emphasize the relatively small number of perpetrators of these horrific assaults. For example, despite the Tree of Life massacre and the spike in anti-Jewish incidents, survey results suggest that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is at an all-time low.

Anti-Semitism has never been eradicated, and probably never could be. It dwells in the crevices and fissures. Largely extinguished in the uppermost reaches of society, it flourishes most among cranks and broken souls on the margins–those for whom the post-industrial world provides few satisfying occupational or real world communal niches. Jew hatred is a minority phenomenon, to be sure. In an age when AR-15s are easy to come by, even the smallest minority is profoundly dangerous.

Anti-Semitic incidents have increased dramatically, up 57 percent in just the last year according to the Anti-Defamation League, and, in fact, hate crimes are up across the board. Statistics show the number of people killed by far-right extremists since Sept. 11 are roughly equal to the number killed in the U.S. by jihadist terrorists–a fact that has received little public attention and gone unremarked upon by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray in his annual testimony before Congress. Hate crimes against Muslims also rose almost 20 percent in 2016 over 2015.

When the Constitution was being crafted, James Madison and other Founders worried about “the tyranny of the majority.” Madison assumed that minorities–by which he meant people who held dissenting and/or anti-social beliefs–would be unlikely to find each other; they would easily be outnumbered (and silenced) by majorities of citizens who disagreed with them.

Madison couldn’t have envisioned the Internet, where all manner of advocates, kooks and haters can join each other in creating communities of the like-minded, and reinforce each others’ extremist beliefs.

As we’ve seen all too often, these online communities have become gigantic amplifiers, emboldening their participants and strengthening them in their most vile convictions. Just as the Internet turbocharged the jihadi universe and created a global support community for ISIS, it has networked and inspired the far-right.

Another thing Madison could never have predicted, of course, was the election of a President as dangerously anti-democratic, racist and dysfunctional as Donald Trump.

The second development that has lit up this increasingly linked and animated extremist world is the advent of Donald Trump. The statistics demonstrate clearly that the biggest bump in hate crimes in recent history coincides with the period since his presidential campaign began. This is not just a matter of correlation but causation. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, from his accusation that Mexicans coming to the U.S. were rapists to his claims that the caravan of impoverished Central American migrants coming north included Middle Easterners–aka “terrorists”–has given license to those who peddle hatred to emerge from the shadows. Much as ISIS has done with its far-flung recruits, Trump’s conspiracy theories have weaponized mental disability.

A friend of mine, the chief executive of his firm, recently shared a rule he imposed at meetings: complaints and criticisms would be welcomed, but only when accompanied by proposed solutions.

Complaining about something without proposing a solution is just whining–and whining doesn’t get us anywhere.

This particular complaint is the growth of domestic terrorism. One part of the solution is obvious; we must replace Donald Trump with someone who understands the role and responsibility of the Presidency.

Madison’s question of faction–and the ease with which unstable individuals can now connect–is harder. But as the Times article suggested, a far more robust government response would be a good start.