Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doing a Joyful Jig

Jon Schwarz has a new article at The Intercept about a fascinating short documentary film about a pro-Nazi rally in New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1939.  Jon gives the historical background in the article, and links to the film so you can watch it from there.

I'm not nearly as horrified by the film as Jon says I should be.  For one thing, I am pretty sure I'd heard of this "Pro-American Rally" before, and I'd certainly heard of the pro-fascist Roman Catholic priest Father Coughlin, whose wildly popular radio program publicized the rally and helped fill the Garden.  I also know something of the popularity of Nazism in this country: of the stalwart working Americans who would rather have lost the war than work next to Negroes, and of the leading American politicians and business figures who found fascist dictators strangely alluring, both before and after World War II.  More recently I can hardly help being aware of white Americans who are not at all bothered by neo-Nazis' draping themselves in Old Glory and the Stars and Bars along with the swastika, defending Confederate memorials in the name of the White Christian Reich.  The people who do so probably wouldn't call themselves Nazis, but they're clearly willing to make common cause with them, just as their grandparents were.  Or maybe not -- I don't know how their grandparents felt.  But these people are standing now in the American Nazi tradition, which goes back to the 1930s.

I have a few quibbles with Jon's article, though.  At one point he writes:
This is a ferocious, simian exhilaration that can only be felt by someone who is emotionally a child. But there are always many chronological adults waiting for someone to give them permission to lay down the burden of an individual adult’s consciousness. To tell them: We’ve located the culprits causing all your frustration and pain. They look like us, like humans, but they’re not. They’re wearing a disguise. Dissolve with us into this howling mass of protoplasm, and you will be responsible for nothing.
Whether Jon or I like it or not, those people are human -- that's just the problem.  And he knows it, since in the very next sentences he write, he says: "This has happened, at various scales, innumerable times in our species’ history. It’s more profoundly a part of us than anything we think of as “politics.”  So it's not only human, it's "profoundly" human.  And pretending otherwise is not only demagoguery, it's racist: Othering human beings by denying their humanity is how racism works.  As Walter Kaufmann wrote, not only is the criminal like you, you, alas are like the criminal.  We've located the culprits causing our humiliation and pain: they were in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939, in Charlottesville in August 2017, and so on.

Acknowledging my common humanity with Nazis doesn't mean that I don't oppose them, that I won't criticize them, that I don't see them as dangerous.  (Nor does defending their right of free speech mean that I support them, as many crypto-fascists on the left will claim.  It's the same claim made by fascists on the right, of course: if you defend the rights of homosexuals, you must be a homosexual; if you defend the rights of black citizens, you're a nigger-lover.  Yet both factions see themselves as fundamentally different from each other.)  It means that I know I can't defeat them by assuming they're not human.

The passage I quoted above refers to an incident at the rally:
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn [the main speaker at the rally] smirks, and the audience erupts in glee...
Perhaps the central moment of “A Night at the Garden” is a shot of a young uniformed boy on stage. He is maybe 8 years old, and part of the Bund youth; he appears smaller and slighter than the others. As the crowd humiliates Greenbaum and drags him away, the boy looks around for affirmation that he is not alone. Then he does a joyful jig, rubs his hands together, and performs his dance again.
This is repugnant, of course, but I couldn't read about it without thinking of liberal Democrats indulging in similar eruptions of glee when some right-winger gets his comeuppance, or even when some smirking hack like Stephen Colbert makes a fag joke about Donald Trump.  Or when a white racist, arrested for assault, or even just fearing arrest, bursts into tears -- if his pants had been pulled down, there'd be joyful jigs by liberals and progressives all over social media.  As there are today, over the first indictments handed down by Robert Mueller, by people who are overestimating how significant they are.  But it doesn't matter: what matters is Bam! Boom! Oh, burn!  As if politics were a spectator sport, our team against their team, which I have to admit it is.  And when they think a right-winger has been humiliated, eviscerated, shredded, why not dance a victory jig, even nothing has been achieved.

Which is why, although I'm disgusted by the mistreatment and humiliation of Isadore Greenbaum, I question his good sense in jumping up onto the stage.  As I've asked before about protestors who fantasized that they, one man or woman, would take Trump down by speaking out at one of his campaign rallies, what did they think they were going to achieve if no one had molested them?  It's another resort to politics as pure spectacle.  Would Clinton fans have felt that she had been decisively defeated if some Trump fan had jumped up onto the platform of one of her campaign rallies?  Far from it: they'd have been outraged by the white patriarchal assault on a strong woman, and on all women.  If someone depantsed him as he was dragged away, there'd be joyful jigs all over social media.

Lest someone try to say so, this is not about "moral equivalence."  The principle of free speech is not about the moral content of your speech, though people all over the political spectrum have immense difficulty grasping this elementary idea.  You can, and should, criticize the content of other people's speech -- though you should also be self-critical about your own.  Freedom of expression makes no guarantees that what is said will be good.  If anything, it guarantees that much of what is said will be bad.  It just means that the State is not allowed to to regulate it.  (We badly need some legal limits on the power of private entities to regulate speech.)

One commenter complained in that direction: "With your rhetoric on shutting down nazi events surprised you don't condemn Isadore Greenbaum, Jewish man who rushed the stage".  Well, that's the question.  If it's okay for him to do it, or for a woman to shout "Black Lives Matter" at a Trump campaign rally, then it's okay for a Trump supporter to yell "Hitlery" at a Clinton rally.  The issue is consistency: what one side is allowed to do, the other side must also be allowed to do.  If liberals condemn the Right for fostering a climate of hate, they are not allowed to foster a climate of hate themselves.  Boasting about your own hypocrisy is even worse: it's exactly what Trump supporters do, so you're congratulating yourself for sinking to their level.  I don't "condemn" Greenbaum; I just don't think he was very smart.  I don't believe he was thinking, and we can't afford not to think -- not in 1939, not now.