Now that we are embracing “white supremacy,” are we sidelining “bigotry” and “hatred?”
In the late summer of 1963 I had a chance encounter with Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was raking leaves near his home in the Tokeneke enclave of Darien, Connecticut. I was strolling with a friend of a friend. We shook hands. Lindbergh looked haggard, suspicious and wary of greeting a stranger. Did I know that his public persona as aviator/world record holder had been eclipsed by his advocacy of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party? At 18, I was buried in adolescent latency. I was clueless of who Lindbergh really was.
Years later I am mystified by the encounter with a man once celebrated as an authentic American hero whom history would remember as a witless dupe. How could this happen?
Lindbergh’s “descendancy” captures a parallel ascendancy of our time: hatred and bigotry. For Lindbergh not only advocated for what was to become Nazism, he tried to convince America that Hitler DESERVED to reign over Germany. Hitler and his followers were “good for Germany.” One contemplates who, then, was “bad.”
My family of German origin had suffered as did many Germans of that period by the relentless ascendancy of hatred and bigotry. The lucky ones fled Germany. The unlucky ones and the ones stymied by the world’s refusal to take in German refugees suffered immeasurably as the Nazi movement ascended in German society.
With Trump and company’s help, we are in the troubling awakening of “here we are again,” witnessing hatred and bigotry at work. And we are being treated to a dusted off sociological and cultural distraction, “white supremacy.”
White supremacy” is a scientific sounding qualifier offered up to distract us from focusing on the “hatred” and “bigotry” now afoot in America and yes, afoot in a select group of repressive regimes, whose leaders, not unconvincingly, Trump cheers on.
Let’s turn away from pondering Trump’s “excesses” to. considering how we use and are being used by the term “white supremacy.”
Like as we are to claim things we haven’t invented, we didn’t invent “white supremacy.” (1) The term became popular in the nineteenth century to describe the new rendition of social Darwinism: that some “races” in physicality and intellectual “demeanor” were more superior, more exalted than others. At the time — the days of the “village idiot” had barely passed — this proposition seemed plausible on two counts: first, it bore out in unreflected personal experience and two, it helped rationalize exploitation — slavery, the ownership of another species, thrived.
As global affairs grew more complex and inter species exploitation was challenged, the use of “white supremacy” mushroomed to include “immigrants,” freed slaves, folks with different colored skin and culture. You get the idea: ‘only white allowed.’
Opportunistically buried by this mushrooming, behind the rationalizations, lay the age-old ‘tribalistics’ of hatred and bigotry. If “white supremacy” was the rationalized, normalization of exploitation, “hatred” and “bigotry” were the coal furnace. If “white supremacy” made it into the court of public opinion, “hatred” and “bigotry” were the perpetrators.
Objectifying a scourge doesn’t acknowledge its hold on our collective imagination. Yes, eventually “white supremacy”, like eugenics was debunked for what it was, an effort to exclude, debase, and dismiss another of our species. That’s the intellectual part of this trajectory. But the socio-cultural part lingers, why?
We’ve let it. We’ve dropped our guard on incipient hatred and bigotry at work because we “are above all that.” If this sounds solipsistic, it’s because it is.
There is another dimension to this normative abuse. Hatred and bigotry are pervasive in the human condition: aspects of life better to acknowledge than to be appalled by. “Disgust” is a variant of acceptance, “acknowledgement” maybe not.
20th century critical thinkers first proposed as cause for totalitarianism’s consequences was not the evil we see and expect but an evil so pervasive we need to be trained (and re-trained) to ward it off (2). Evil and bigotry so common and so widespread, that both are subject and object in the social discussion. Not “everywhere”, but ‘here, there, at the ready.’
Scholars of totalitarianism and resistance-embedded journalists have borne witness (3) that once the social discussion devolves to “us” and “them,” the larger victory against totalitarianism is lost, meaning the succession of accommodations to hate and hating. We have not progressed, we have regressed.
Despots are fond of invoking “past. superiority,” nostalgia for the days of oppression.
Missing from this analysis is the prideful blindness of privilege, the “grease” of class structure. “To be continued…”
July 24 -26, 2020
(1) See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_racism
(2) Rheinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. among many. For a historical perspective, read a summation by Stephen Bronner, “From Modernity to Bigotry,” (Chapter title) “Autocracy and Bigotry”
(3) Further reading:
Masha Gessen, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”
Sarah Kendzior, “Hiding in Plain Sight”
Jason Stanley, “How Fascism Works: the politics of us and them”