Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hitler, Trump, and Anti-Modernism

From an exhibit at the museum in Dachau
The Nazi Party, according to an exhibit on Weimar Germany in the museum at Dachau, appealed to Germans who opposed the "modernization of society."  Maybe ten years ago, Karen Armstrong said in an assembly at Exeter and in her book, The Battle for God, that the rise of radical fundamentalism all over the world in the 20th century is essentially a rebellion against modernity.  Is this essentially what Trump voters are rebelling against, too?  In his recent book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra argues that the many angry people all across the globe today have one common gripe: "resentment at a ‘modernity’ that promises equality and freedom and delivers only the dog-eat-dog brutality and competition of neoliberal capitalism."

I grew up with a faith in the inevitability of progress: the evolution of societies and people from backward to advanced, from ignorant to enlightened,  the steady advance of technology, prosperity, and democracy that promised better things always in the future.  Today, such faith seems naive or delusional when you consider the worldwide rise of right wing extremism, the rotting out of the Republican Party, global warming, terrorism, email, and the appearance of the phrase "President Trump" in newspapers everywhere.

An article in the current Atlantic magazine quotes Claude Levi-Strauss saying that "civilization has been in decline since the Neolithic period."  The article profiles an anthropology professor at Washington College who claims hunter-gatherers where healthier, happier, and probably even smarter than moderns.  Jared Diamond argues similar things in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel and elsewhere, and James Loewen coined the term chronological ethnocentrism to capture our unwarranted assumption that humans today are smarter and better than humans in the past.

Is it possible that history is one long and steady decline from golden past to dystopian futureWhen you look at the desperation that seems to have driven white working class Americans to vote for Trump, it seems plausible.  Rising mortality among middle aged white people without a college degree, the opioid epidemic, declining incomes, the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector of the economy, the increasing precariousness of middle class families. 

The Exeter faculty book group read Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, over spring break.  The book supports Levi-Strauss's claim with a lot of compelling stories that show how people are really better off living in small, communal, groups like the hunter-gatherers than in our alienating, competitive, individualistic modern societies.  (Reviews of the book break down along predictable lines, between those who think that life among pre-modern peoples was nasty, brutish and short, and those who think it was paradise lost.

Hitler and the Nazis, and perhaps Trump, seem instinctively to have tapped into this chronic dissatisfaction with modern lifeAn exhibit at the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party rallying grounds in Nuremberg included a reference to the phrase Gemeinschaft statt Gesellschaft (community instead of society) and a video about what was going on behind the scenes at the rallies.  Party members arrived by the hundreds of thousands on trains from all over, and stayed in crowded, unsanitary conditions in row after row of tents.  In the film, attendees can be seen swilling beer, washing up outside, joking and horsing around.  The film was meant to show that the Nazi rallies weren't as well organized as they appeared in films of orderly columns marching in lock step, enthusiastically hailing the F├╝hrer.  

But more significantly, it showed how the party attracted followers in part by fulfilling a fundamental human need for belonging The shared hardship of those camps created a sense of mission and common purpose that formed party members into a mass tribe.  Accounts of Trump rallies suggests a similar tribal solidarity there 

I just read this review by Christopher Benfey in the NYRB of a batch of books on the history of utopian dreams in the US.  Utopian visions and communitarian experiments tend to spring up, the author argues, when the real world seems to be getting uglier.  "In the background of every utopia is there is an anti-utopia," the author of Utopian Thought in the Western World wrote back in 1979, at the beginning of our current descent into the neoliberal anti-utopiaIt's no coincidence that many of the utopian visions of the 19th century emerged from the industrial hellscape of Manchester England, the Nazi Party succeed amidst the despair of the Great Depression, and Trump's surprise victory emerged from the hollowed out post-industrial rust belt .  

From the Weimar Constitution
Much has been written about how the neoliberal order is tough on white working class folks without a college degree.  But is it really so great for the supposed winners: the educated, cosmopolitan "elites" living along the coasts and working knowledge economy jobs?  The Hunger Games competition for an education that has turned childhood into a resume-building exercise, the electronic collar of emails and laptops and workdays that never end, the breakdown of family life as we uproot ourselves in a desperate search for the next great opportunity--that may be just slightly less bad than unemployment in the industrial ghost townAnd if you think educated knowledge workers are immune to the offshoring and outsourcing that has done so much damage to high school diploma class, consider the H1-B visa and this episode of 60 Minutes

In our discussion of Tribe last week, the book group speculated about how we might apply lessons from the book to make Exeter a better place.  According to Benfey, most utopian experiments have had a few things in common: "that society should be based on cooperation rather than competition; that the nuclear family should be subsumed into the larger community; that property should be held in common; that women should not be subordinate to men; that work of even the  most menial kind must be accorded a certain dignity." The architects of these experiments hadn't read Tribe but they might have.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weimar Germany and Trump's America

At Friedrich Ebert's birthplace
While we were in Nuremberg I downloaded the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich onto my Kindle.  As I read about Germany in the 20s, I was struck by how difficult it was for the new republic to defend itself against its enemies, who not only opposed the ruling Social Democratic Party, but also republican government itself.  That's a place where Nazi analogies to Trump seem to break down.  In the US, there is no party that advocates tearing up the Constitution and replacing it with a monarchy.  We all agree that democracy--or to be more specific, a democratic republic--is the only legitimate form of government.  Right? 

But Trump, and to a lesser extent the Republican Party, seem to be undermining democratic norms without questioning the legitimacy of democracy itself. For example, this article by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books was waiting for me when I got home.  Among other things, he says:

Four weeks of the Trump ascendancy have been an ongoing seminar on where norms end and laws begin, on how much of what we had relied on when it came to the president’s conduct rested largely on a heretofore unquestioned foundation of centuries-old custom. That the president would express respect for the prerogatives of Congress and the judiciary, that he would acknowledge the country’s need for an independent press, that he would generally tell the truth and hold in respect the public record: in little more than the time it took to recite the oath of office much of this has been swept away. Donald Trump is a proud shatterer of these norms, and the louder the crash and splatter the better: for to his supporters such norms are nostrums, antiquated excuses for the elite’s own self-protection, and the wails of outrage and protest mean their hero is doing what they sent him to Washington to do.
The history of the Weimar Republic shows that not caring about certain democratic norms--respect for the truth and the press, for example--gives a strategic edge to anti-democrats. 
The Weimar democrats seemed feckless and you wish they had fought back harder.  Will people look back and say the same about Trump's opponents if he ends up wrecking American democracy?   It made me think about how we teach our students to be the citizens of a democracy.  I wrote in my travel journal: "We teach students to consider 'could I be wrong?' and to be searchers for the truth.  Will they be prepared to contend with people who don't share this rational approach, who don't care whether or not they are wrong but only how they can win?"

In Heidelberg, We visited the birthplace (above) of the president of the Weimar Republic, and stumbled on a monument to him (below) in one of the town squares.

While I was in Nuremberg I found myself reading about the recent controversy at Middlebury College, where students shouted down, heckled and used physical coercion to prevent a public address by conservative author Charles Murray, because he once wrote a book that endorsed racial theories of human intelligence--The Bell Curve.  It trafficked in the same sorts of eugenic theories used by Nazis in Germany and white supremacists in the United States.  Like most of those who commented on the Middlebury riot, I thought the students' reaction was totally wrong, a violation of the liberal principle of free speech, the belief that free exchange of ideas would relegate hateful ideologies to the dustbin of history.  But as I read this piece in the NY Times by students involved in the protest, I felt sympathy for their struggle to come up with an appropriate response to a public presentation by a purveyor of ideas that are so hateful and have provided intellectual justification for so many evil acts.  How do democrats stand up effectively for democracy, against anti-democrats, without betraying their democratic principles? As Andover principal John Palfry said in his post election assembly address, there is a limit to tolerance:

What I believe is that there must be a point at which the tolerant are allowed to be intolerant of those who are intolerant. Our study of history points to many examples when it was a terrible mistake to tolerate intolerance for too long. This is the paradox of tolerance – and it is much on my mind today. Each one of us must find for ourselves that point.

In Munich, a monument to some who resisted the Nazis.  Below, Shirker's Lane.

Addendum, April 2, 2017.  Last night I watched "Denial," a film about the libel trial of Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued by David Irving for impugning his reputation as a historian by calling him a Holocaust denier.  Before the lawsuit, Lipstadt refused to debate with Holocaust deniers--she said it gave legitimacy to their ideas.  It would be like debating whether the world is round or if Elvis is alive. But to win her case, her lawyers directly engaged Irving's research and his conclusions and the judge ruled that his theories were demonstrably false. The trial is portrayed in the film as a great victory for historical truth and for the methods of the historical profession. Since the Middlebury riot, I've been remembering that when the Bell Curve came out in the 1990s, I did not make a concerted effort to study the raw data and the statistical evidence and arrive at my own conclusions.  Nor have I studied enough of the relevant primary documents showing that the Holocaust took place, or even, for that matter, that Elvis is dead or global warming is real, or that vaccines don't cause autism.  As with most things, I accept the consensus view as published in trusted sources--I trusted the experts, something that the electorate seems increasingly unwilling to do.  It seems that we can never assume that any old crappy idea is truly dead, safely relegated to the dustbin of history. In relation to Murray and the Bell Curve, the idea has crossed my mind that schools might teach that controversy and that it would be an excellent opportunity for a truly interdisciplinary lesson--history, biology, statistics.   Or would that be to give legitimacy to discredited racialist theories?  This piece from the NYRB engages the "science" of the Bell Curve.  

Here is an article that posits a difference between offensive and abusive speech.  It categorizes Murray's views on IQ as merely offensive speech that should not be banned, but Milo Yiannopoulis's shtick as abusive, akin to bullying, which should be banned. 

July 24, 2017.  In this week's On the Media (my favorite NPR show), Bob Garfield said America's current political process looks like a "direct parallel" to Weimar Germany and ended the episode by saying he hopes "we are not all passengers on a ship of fools," a reference to a 1965 film about a cruise ship heading from Mexico to Nazi German in 1933.  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Visit to Nuremberg, March, 2017

I climbed to the top of the Sinwell Tower in the 12th century imperial castle, the Kaiserburg, above the city. 

The photographs below were arranged in the windows, showing views of the city from the tower, before and after the World War II allied bombing campaign.  

Nuremberg, before the Allied bombs fell in World War II
 After the bombings. 

The view from the Sinwell Tower when I was there, in March of 2017. The big church in the foreground is St. Sebald Lutheran Church.

After I climbed down from the tower, I visited St. Sebald.  Below are shots of the interior and exterior of the church, where Johann Pachelbel played the organ in the 17th century. Above are photos from an exhibit inside the church.  Note that someone seems to want to absolve the Nazi's of blame for the war's devastation.

Later, Wendy and I visited the Reichsparteitagsgelande on the edge of the city.  This includes the site of the infamous Nuremberg Rallies and the Documentation Center, a museum that chronicles the the rise of the Third Reich and World War II, with emphasis on the role of Nuremberg.  

The Zeppelinfeld, on the edge of the city, where the Nazis held most of their their rallies and parades.  That's the platform from which Hitler made his speeches.

I am not a fan of Hitler analogies.  During the Obama administration Lyndon LaRouche followers used to set up a table in front of the Exeter Post Office with a huge picture of Obama sporting a Hitler mustache.   Glenn Beck brought the Hitler analogy to it's absurd extreme.  While we were in Germany, one of my Facebook friends posted this critique of more recent Nazi analogies aimed at Trump.

I hope the Tump-Hitler analogies turn out to be as silly as the Obama-Hitler analogies certainly were.  But being in Nuremberg, visiting the museums, contemplating the horrors of World War II and how the Nazis came to power, while following the news back home, gave me a queasy feeling.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

People Power in Dark Times: Black Newspapers during the Nadir

Shortly before the New Year, 2017, a caller to the Diane Rhem show asked Ta-Nehisi Coates if he could offer any reason for optimism in the coming years of the Trump administration. No, Coates answered, but we should look for inspiration to the past, to African Americans’ long and uplifting history of struggle. That is an important message, not just for African Americans but for all of us human beings. Progress requires struggle even, or maybe especially, in times of regression.

My 2001 book, Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy, 1914 to 1920, is the story of crusading black journalists, editors and publishers who were part of the struggle Coates praised. They stood up and spoke out when everything about the times told them to sit down and shut up. Black newspapers fought for civil rights and racial equality all throughout the period in American history known as the Nadir, 1890-1940, when the tide of history had turned brutally against African Americans. Although black activism would not have a major impact on race relations until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, their efforts were not in vain—they bore some fruit in the short term and more importantly they sustained a rich protest tradition and passed it down to activists who would have greater success under more favorable conditions later on.

In a time when it was not unusual for assertive black activists to be attacked and killed and when hundreds of black people were brutally lynched every year, and when the dominant ideology of the time said that political activism was futile, these courageous and stubborn individuals stood up and demanded that America live up to its democratic ideas, often at great risk to themselves. For example, William Monroe Trotter gave up a prosperous real estate business to publish his weekly newspaper, The Guardian, of Boston, which he used to agitate unceasingly for civil rights. Jesse Duke and Ida Wells had to flee the South after they denounced lynching in their newspapers. W.E.B. Du Bois put his academic career on hold to crusade for black rights as an editor of the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis.

Instead of risking life and limb and sacrificing their own personal ambitions to fight for the collective interest of their group, these individuals might have followed the advice of Booker T. Washington, who embodied the reigning spirit of the times when he called on black people to cease their agitation for civil, legal, and political group rights and instead focus on individual economic advancement. The head of Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama, Washington exerted enormous influence in those years. He embraced America’s civic religion—Social Darwinism, a fundamentalist faith in the inevitability of progress through the mechanisms of the free market and survival of the fittest. The free market would assure that the most qualified individuals would rise to the top and their leadership would bring about progress for the rest of humanity. Washington applied this logic to the black race in America: “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized,” he said in his Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895. Any attempt to interfere with this process through legislation that gave an advantage to weaker or less capable individuals would hamper this progress to the detriment of society. The most influential spokesman for this absolute faith in the power of unfettered economic and social forces to bring about positive progress, William Graham Sumner, said:

The great stream of time and earthly things will sweep on just the same in spite of us. . . .  Every one of us is a child of his age and cannot get out of it. He is in the stream and is swept along with it. All his science and philosophy come to him out of it. Therefore, the tide will not be changed by us. It will swallow up both us and our experiments.

The men and women of the black press rejected this precept. Instead they subscribed to a view that human beings are not helpless flotsam in the stream of history. This view had been reinforced by specific events in American history, including the American Revolution, the emancipation of the slaves, and the Civil Rights Movement, each of which would never have happened without the positive actions of living people, actions that required shrewd strategizing and courageous self-sacrifice. It may be that they were acting against a powerful tide in those years of the nadir, and that their efforts did little to advance freedom and equality in the short term. In fact, during World War I, some federal government agents said the black press was guilty of sedition and recommended suppression and prosecution. But as I show in my book, the publishers of these newspapers did not back down and their stubborn persistence made a difference. Their unrelenting protest against lynching as a violation of basic American principles helped to invigorate an anti-lynching movement that was at least partially responsible for a decline in Southern lynchings beginning in the 1920s. A conference of black newspaper editors in Washington D.C. in 1918 had persuaded President Wilson to make a strong statement against lynching, condemning it as anti-American and as a hindrance to the war effort. In addition, the military agreed to mitigate some of the worst discriminatory practices against blacks in the armed services. The war ended before most of the editors’ demands could be addressed, however.

Such tangible gains were far less important than the way black newspapers kept alive a tradition of protest that would one day have a dramatic impact on American democracy. The Civil Rights Movement would lead to a revolution in race relations not because of the inevitable tides of history but because of the courage of individuals who sacrificed personal ambition and put their lives on the line. As Martin Luther King Jr., put it:

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.

This view was nurtured by generations of black activists in all kinds of institutions and organizations, not only the black press, but in protest organizations like the National Negro Convention movement, the National Afro-American League, the Niagara Movement, the National Association of Colored Women, and by countless brave individuals like David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

The lesson for all of us is that we don't have to passively except what history dishes out. Even when the odds are against us and the forces of reaction seem to be chipping away at previous gains, it is not pointless to stand up and work for a better world. It’s a lesson that has great relevance as we contemplate the start of a new and reactionary administration--not just for African Americans but for all of us who believe in democratic values and social progress.
Buy the book!