Sunday, November 25, 2012

Somewhere Over the Reagan

I understand the anguish that produced this meme, and I sympathize with it.  But it happens to be false.  Which doesn't affect its claim that racism is behind a lot of the vilification of Barack Obama; of course it is.  It's not necessary to falsify history to make and defend that claim, however.

In order: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was attacked by the Far Right as the Jew Franklin Delano Rosenfeld: far from the Episcopalian Christian he pretended to be, they alleged, Roosevelt was descended from Dutch Jews, "surrounded himself with socialist Jews even when he was Governor of New York, and many were appointed to top jobs in the Roosevelt administration".  The source of that quote claims that there's nothing necessarily anti-Semitic about tracing Roosevelt's allegedly Jewish ancestry.  That's trivially true, but in historical context there was no other reason to dwell on it even if were true.  For example:
From the viewpoint of eugenics, it [FDR’s Jewish background] explains his natural bent toward radicalism … and proves unmistakably, that the Roosevelt administration offers a biological, as well as a political problem. It is therefore as natural to him to be radical as it is for others to be true Americans … HE IS NOT ONE OF US!”
- Gerald Winrod, Defender magazine, 1935
A major propagator of the "Jew Rosenfeld" claim was the notorious Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who gained a radio audience of millions in the 1930s with a venomous spew of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.  Coughlin
drew 40 million listeners in the early thirties to his Sunday afternoon program, double the 20 million that Rush Limbaugh has claimed for his audience. But he didn’t just talk; he urged action—illegal and terrifying. By1938, increasingly unhinged and openly anti-Semitic, Coughlin was using his radio pulpit and his 200,000-circulation newspaper, Social Justice, to advocate for the creation of a violent hate group, the Christian Front. The group soon boasted members numbering in the thousands throughout the cities of Northeast. It has largely been forgotten that Coughlin’s “platoons,” as he called them, were responsible for a months-long campaign of low-level mayhem in New York City: They attacked Jews with fists and sometimes knifes. They boycotted Jewish-owned businesses (guided by a “Christian index” of shopkeepers) and sometimes smashed their windows in the German fashion. This ugly episode culminated when 17 Coughlinites were arrested by the FBI in January 1940 and charged with planning acts of terrorism against Jewish individuals and institutions (and those deemed their allies). 

Although he didn’t have a role in orchestrating the plan, Coughlin, after a brief hesitation, gave his full-throated support to the “Brooklyn Boys,” saying in a January 21,1940, broadcast that “I take my stand beside the Christian Fronters … [and] … reaffirm every word which I have said in advocating [the Front’s] formation.”
Coughlin operated with the indulgence of his superiors in the Church; they took no action against him until after the US went to war against Germany.
He left the radio airwaves of his own volition in 1940, but he continued to publish Nazi propaganda in Social Justice until the spring of 1942, when the U.S. government suspended his second-class mailing permit, charging that the paper obstructed the war effort in violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. Coughlin’s boss, Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney, was roused to put his foot down and demand that Coughlin not fight the government’s action in court. He bowed to ecclesiastical authority. At least, that’s been the standard story for decades. Author Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written several books about the sexuality of Catholic priests, offers evidence that Coughlin stayed silent only after Hoover called him up and threatened to go public with “proof of Coughlin’s homosexuality.”
Despite all this, Coughlin maintained "his pastorship until his retirement in 1966"; he died in 1979.  Of FDR he said as late as 1970:
Roosevelt is Jewish. Rosenfeld was the first name and he wasn’t regarded as one of the first founders of Jewry in this country, either. I have a book out there with the pedigree of all the Jews in it written by a Jew which I can show you ...some of them more famous Jews than he.
I first heard about the "Jew Rosenfeld" canard in the 1970s, from Gore Vidal's recollections of some
West Point generals who took some pleasure in denouncing that Jew Franklin D. Rosenfeld who had got us into the war on the wrong side.  We ought to be fighting the Commies not Hitler.  But then FDR was not only a kike, he was sick in the head -- and not from polio but from syphilis.  Anyway, everything could be straightened out -- with just one infantry brigade they would surround the White House, the Capitol, remove the Jew ...
So, as you can see, Obama is not the only President to have been denounced in such terms.  The kind of anti-Semitism described above is not dead yet, it's still alive on the Web and elsewhere, but for the most part its sentiments and rhetoric have been transferred to Muslims.

Of the other presidents in the meme, Dwight Eisenhower has been accused of being of Jewish descent, but on this level, who hasn't?  Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, claimed that Eisenhower was "'a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy, and that the government of the United States was 'under operational control of the Communist party.' It was, he said in the summer of 1961, '50-70 percent' Communist-controlled."  But by that time the new Right wing, people like William Buckley, were anxious to establish themselves as sane, rational extremists, so they attacked Welch.  He held a place somewhere in the American political imaginary comparable to that of the Westboro Christian Church: such extreme, virulent nutjobs that less extreme, slightly less virulent nutjobs could use him to make themselves look more moderate.  In this period, Red-baiting was standard political procedure, and Richard Nixon built his career on it.  But again, Obama is neither the first nor the only American President to have been the target of such smears.

As for Ronald Reagan, he was a right-wing Red-baiter himself.  His political support came from the same part of the political spectrum whose rightward margins were defined by groups like the Birch Society, though he too used the Birchers as an extreme to make himself look more moderate.  Democrats called Reagan an extremist, which was true for what little the label is worth.  But Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed him for the governorship of California.  In any case, nobody was going to call Reagan a Red, or a Jew (hell, he bought a house under a "racial covenant" to keep it out of Jews' hands), or un-American; like Nixon, he was the one who did that to other politicians.

Reagan, then, is the one President listed of whom this meme's claim is true.  Whoever came up with it is evidently very ignorant of twentieth-century American political history.  But history isn't really its purpose, is it?  It's primarily another case of liberals crying "Oh, how can you say such awful things?" to right-wing smears, instead of buckling down, doing their homework, and fighting back in an informed, halfway rational way.

One more bit about Father Coughlin: the New Republic writer I quoted above discusses Coughlin's 1938 defense of Kristallnacht, the massive, organized Nazi attack on German Jews that outraged many people around the world:
Coughlin argued ... that the atrocity was merely a “defense mechanism against communism,” which was the product of “atheistic Jews.” He sneered at the attendant publicity, “attributable to the fact that Jews, through their native ability, have risen to such high places in radio and in press and in finance.”
As rhetoric, this is very similar to defenses of Israel's current attack on Gaza (now ended by a truce and ceasefire).  The "defense mechanism" should be obvious enough, but I've also seen numerous defenders of Israel claim that critics of the attack have been "brainwashed by the media" -- which is funny when you consider that the US corporate media have been uniformly supportive of Israel, now as always.  Am I comparing Israel to the Nazis?  No; I'm comparing them to the Roman Catholic Church.