Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Jonah and the Klan

-- by Dave

I'd like the public to remember someone left out of Jonah Goldberg's book about American fascism, Liberal Fascism. Someone who might have something to say on the subject, were he still alive.

His name was Leo Frank. You may have heard of him. Evidently, either Jonah has either never heard of him, or has forgotten all about him, or perhaps would just like everyone else to forget all about him. Leo, you see, inspired the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, though not through any action of his own.

From the Wikipedia entry:
Leo Max Frank (April 17, 1884 – August 17, 1915) was an American Jew. His lynching by a mob of prominent citizens in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915 demonstrated anti-Semitism in the United States and led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.

Frank, the manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted on the basis of circumstantial and direct evidence of murdering an employee, 13-year-old Mary Phagan. The case is widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice. The trial was sensationalized by the media. The Georgia politician and publisher Tom Watson used the case to build personal political power and support for a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Shortly after Frank's conviction, new evidence emerged that cast doubt on his guilt. After the governor commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, Frank was kidnapped from prison by a group of prominent citizens calling itself "The Knights of Mary Phagan", and lynched. The mob is reported to have included the son of a senator, a former governor, lawyers, and a prosecutor.

As the entry (which is quite accurate) goes on to explain, the Frank lynching played a key role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan:
Southerners who believed Frank was guilty saw similarities between the Frank trial and The Birth of a Nation. Watson used sentiments aroused by sensational coverage of the Frank trial to build up power. Some members of the lynching mob decided to create a new Ku Klux Klan. The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 at a mountaintop meeting, led by William J. Simmons, and attended by aging members of the original Klan, along with members of the Knights of Mary Phagan.

I want people to remember Leo Frank, and how his lynching inspired the birth of not just the ADL but more particularly the Klan, because Liberal Fascism contains probably the worst whitewashing of the Ku Klux Klan I have read, outside of overt Klan apologists, in my thirty years or so of writing about them and studying them. Here it is, on pp. 259-260:
Perhaps an even better indication of how little modern popular conceptions jibe with the historical reality during this period is the Ku Klux Klan. For decades the Klan has stood as the most obvious candidate for an American brand of fascism. That makes quite a bit of sense. The right-wing label, on the other hand, isn't nearly as clean a fit. The Klan of the Progressive Era was not the same Klan that arose after the Civil War. Rather, it was collection of loosely independent organization spread across the United States. What united them, besides their name and absurd getups, was that they were all inspired by the film The Birth of a Nation. They were, in fact, a "creepy fan subculture" of the film. Founded the week of the film's release in 1915, the second Klan was certainly racist, but not much more than the society in general. Of course, this is less a defense of the Klan than an indictment of the society that produced.

For years the conventional view among scholars and laymen alike was that the Klan was rural and fundamentalist. The truth is that it was often quite cosmopolitan and modern, thriving in cities like New York and Chicago. In many communities, the Klan focused on the reform of local government and maintaining social values. It was often the principal extralegal enforcer of Prohibition, the consummate progressive "reform." "these Klansmen," writes Jesse Walker in an illuminating survey of the latest scholarship, "were more likely to flog you for bootlegging or breaking your marriage vows than for being black or Jewish."

...Moreover, if the Klan was less racist than we've been led to believe, academia was staggeringly more so. ...

This is, of course, outrageous. Nothing that Goldberg presents as "evidence" actually suggests that "the Klan was less racist" -- rather, it only demonstrates that the Klan, a profoundly racist organization, was more than merely a collection of rural rubes; it was, in fact, a complicated phenomenon. And while popular conceptions of the Klan such as Goldberg cites may have distorted that reality, there have never been any illusions about that on the part of historians.

Nor has there been any illusion about where the Klan resides on the American political spectrum: it is an established figure of the far right, and it is so for many reasons besides its racism.

The Klan, of course, was much, much more than merely a "creepy fan subculture" for a film. It used the film for its symbology -- its costumes and cross-burnings were taken from the film, not from the old Klan -- but the heart of its meaning and purpose could be found in the lynching of Leo Frank.

Because the Klan, as Robert O. Paxton explains in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, was probably the first real manifestation of fascism as an organization, not just in America but anywhere:
... [I]t is further back in American history that one comes upon the earliest phenomenon that seems functionally related to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.

Moreover, as Paxton explains, the Klan was fascist not just in its function and the political space it occupied, but in being the embodiment of its ideology, namely:
Although one can deduce from fascist language implicit Social Darwinist assumptions about human nature, the need for community and authority in human society, and the destiny of nations in history, fascism does not base its claims to validity upon their truth. Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travellers. They subordinate thought and reason not to Faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of the blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowess of the race, of the nation, of the community. They claim legitimacy by no universal standard except a Darwinian triumph of the strongest community.

Elsewhere, Paxton explains:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

David Chalmers, in his Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, also is unequivocal in placing the Klan firmly on the right of the political spectrum:
Throughout its history, the Klan has been a conservative, not revolutionary, organization. As a vigilante, it has sought to uphold "law and order," white dominance, and traditional morality. To do this it has threatened, flogged, mutilated, and on occasion, murdered. The main purpose of the Klansmen, Kligrapps, Kludds, and Night Hawks, Cyclopses, Titans, Dragons, and Wizards assembled in their Dens, Klaverns, and Klonvokations, rallying in rented cow pastures, and marching in solemn procession through city streets, has been to defend and restore what they conceived as traditional social values. The Klan has bascially been a revitalization movement.

This happens to confirm the identification of the Klan with American fascism if we follow Roger Griffin's definition of fascism as "a palingenetic and populist form of ultranationalism" (palingenesis referring to a core myth of phoenix-like national rebirth).

The Klan was about much more than mere racism, which was more an expression of its larger mission -- enforcing, through violence, threats, and intimidation, "traditional values" and what it called "100 percent Americanism." It was essentially populist, certainly, but there was no mistaking it for anything "progressive." The latter, in fact, was its sworn enemy.

Chalmers describes (pp. 32-33) how Col. William J. Simmons, the man most responsible for the revival of the Klan in the 1915-20 period, and the leader of that group that burned a cross atop Stone Mountain in honor of the Frank lynch mob, shifted the Klan's focus from merely attacking blacks to a very broad menu of targets:
Upon being introduced to an audience of Georgia Klansmen, Colonel Simmons silently took a Colt automatic from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. Then he took a revolver from another pocket and put it on the table too. Then he unbuckled a cartridge belt and draped it in a crescent shape between the two weapons. Next, without having uttered a word, he drew out a bowie knife and plunged it in the center of the things on the table. "Now let the Niggers, Catholics, Jews, and all the others who disdain my imperial wizardry, come on," he said. The Jews, Mrs. Tyler told newspapermen during a shopping trip in New York, were upset because they know that the Klan "teaches the wisdom of spending American money with American men." To be for the white race, she continued, means to be against all others. Clarke suggested sterilizing the Negro. Simmons explained that the Japanese were but a superior colored race. Never in the history of the world, the Klan believed, had a "mongrel civilization" survived. The major theme, however, was the rich vein of anti-Catholicism, which the Klan was to mine avidly during the 1920s, and it was this more than anything else which made the Klan.

To the Negro, Jew, Oriental, Roman Catholic, and alien, were added dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital "goings-on," and scandalous behavior, as the proper concern of the one-hundred-percent American. The Klan organizer was told to find out what was worrying a community and to offer the Klan as a solution.

Simmons' conception of the Klan as a special secret service bustling about spying on radicalism and questionable patriotism and generally reliving its wartime grandeur, was translated into a more enduring system of societal vigilance. The Klan was brought to Muncie, Indiana, by leading businessmen to cope with a corrupt Democratic city government. It entered Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Herrin County, Illinois, to put down bootlegging. When a newly formed Klan chapter would write to Atlanta for suggestions as to what to do first, the response was almost unvaryingly to "clean up the town," an injunction which usually came to rest it emphasis on the enforcement of the small-town version of the Ten Commandments.

Philip Dray, in his history of the "lynching era," At the Hands of Persons Unknown, describes this opportunism on the part of the Klan as well:
Marketed like any other business or lodge association, the Klan was eventually franchised in twenty-seven states and varied its purpose to confront a wide palette of enemies. To a town inundated with unemployed blacks, one historian has pointed out, it was the Klan of the Griffith film; if bootleggers ran amok, the Klan was an auxiliary police outfit; in the face of labor activism, Klan members became corporate thugs and enforcers; where immigrants threatened to overwhelm a city, the Klan stood ready to publicize 100 percent Americanism. As the organization served as a kind of enforcement group for godly values, many clergymen became Klan members of boosters. Jesus Christ himself, it was said, would have been a Klansman.

A history of the Klan by the SPLC explains that the "community values" agenda in short order became a justification for all kinds of violence:
The message was clear--the new Klan was going to mean business. And that soon meant expanding its list of enemies to include Asians, immigrants, bootleggers, dope, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, sex, pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior. The Klan, with its new mission of social vigilance, soon had organizers scouring the nation, probing for the communities' fears and then exploiting them to the hilt.

And the tactic was an overnight raging success. By the late summer of 1921 nearly 100,000 people had enrolled in the invisible empire, and at ten dollars a head (tax-free since the Klan was a "benevolent" society), the profits were impressive. While Simmons made speeches and tinkered with ritual, Clarke busied himself with expanding the treasury, launching Klan publishing and manufacturing firms and investing in real estate. The future looked very good.

...And its violence was clearly revealed. Under Evans a wave of repression punctuated by lynchings, shootings and whippings swept over the nation in the early and mid-1920's and many communities were firmly in the grasp of the Klan's terror. The victims were usually blacks, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans and various immigrants, but sometimes they were white, Protestant, and female. Klansmen attacked people they considered "immoral" or "traitors" to the white race.

In Alabama, for example, a divorcee with two children was flogged for the crime of remarrying, and then given a jar of Vaseline for her wounds. In Georgia a woman was given 60 lashes for a vague charge of "immorality and failure to go to church." And when her 15-year-old son ran to her rescue, he received the same treatment. In both cases the leaders of the Klansmen responsible turned out to be ministers.

But such instances were not confined to the South--in Oklahoma Klansmen applied the lash to girls caught riding in automobiles with young men, and the Klan in the San Joaquin Valley in California were know to flog and torture women.

In a period when many women were fighting for the vote, for a place in the job market, and for personal and cultural freedom, the Klan claimed to stand for "pure womanhood" and frequently attacked women who sought independence.

Although politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with Klan allies as a result of the turmoil, the success of the Klan candidates across the nation in 1924 buoyed Evans' spirits. His notoriety peaked with a parade of 40,000 Klansmen down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument in August 1925. Evans boasted of having helped re-elect Coolidge, of having secured passage of strict anti-immigration laws and of having checked the ambitions of Catholics and others intent on "perverting" the nation. All in all, the Klan was riding high in the saddle.

As we recently noted, the Klan briefly became a real political force: a nationwide organization with chapters in all 48 states that briefly became a political powerhouse in a number of states, including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Maine, where the Klan played a critical role in the 1924 election of Owen Brewster to the governorship. That same year, the Klan made waves at the Democratic Convention when the Klan-backed candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo of Georgia, declined to denounce them. Al Smith of New York managed to block his nomination, largely on these grounds, and West Virginia's John Davis emerged as the compromise selection. He lost to Calvin Coolidge.

As Chalmers records:
In 1922, the Klan helped elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California, and Oregon, and came close to knocking Missouri's Jim Reed out of the U.S. Senate. It was reported that perhaps as many as seventy-five members of the lower house had received help from Klan votes. An undetermined, and unguessable, number of congressmen, veterans, and newcomers, had actually joined the hooded order, and E.Y. Clarke was asking the local chapters to suggest likely candidates for the future. The next year, the Klan continued to expand, with its greatest strength developing in the upper Mississippi Valley and in the Great Lakes kingdom of D.C. Stephenson.

All this time, the Klan's propensity for violence became its very byword. In Tulsa, where the Klan was such a prominent and active presence that it kept a public "whipping field" at which it publicly humiliated various miscreants, the violence evenutally erupted into the massive Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, where the resulting death toll of African Americans is estimated to have been between 300 and 3,000.

[More photos from the riot here.]

Klan violence clearly was not relegated strictly to the South, but its was particularly intense there, especially the use of cross burnings to threaten and intimidate blacks. This became especially the case in the 1930s and '40s, when the Klan rose to attempt to stem the oncoming tide of the Civil Rights movement; and in the early 1950s, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ordering the desegregation of Southern schools actually produced a second revival of the Klan, all of it focused on the "traditional values" of white supremacy and its fruits: Jim Crow, segregation, lynching.

There were thousands of these lynchings. They are the human victims, like Leo Frank, of the Klan who Jonah Goldberg so casually and carelessly airbrushes out of the pages of his history of American fascism.

And it is not as if the Klan has gone away since. In the ensuing years, it has remained the implacable enemy not merely of civil rights for blacks, but for any minority, including gays and lesbians. Its activities have remained associated with violence of various kinds, including a broad gamut of hate crimes committed against every kind of non-white, or non-Christian, or for that matter non-conservative.

In the recent past, it has revived its nativist roots by becoming vociferously active in the immigration debate, openly sponsoring anti-immigrant rallies at which the Klan robes have come out:

Somewhat predictably, immigration has become a major point of recruitment for the Klan and other white supremacists. And just as predictably, a sharp spike of bias crimes against Latinos has followed in their wake.

This is of a piece with Goldberg's treatment of fascism generally: just as he has managed to trivialize a genuinely destructive and monstrous ideology such as fascism, so does he whitewash and minimize the horrendously poisonous history of real American fascists like the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, it seems as if Goldberg is almost poised to declare the Klan "liberal" or yet another "progressive" offspring; but surely even that must give a pseudo-thinker like Goldberg pause. If the Klan is just another "phenomenon of the Left," then the word no longer has any meaning.

Jonah Goldberg doesn't just want us to forget about Leo Frank; he wants us to ignore the Klan's real presence, and its many victims, even today, as well as its long-running poisoning of the body politic. Because that would kind of, you know, undermine his thesis that the real American fascists are those dirty liberals. And you know what? The Klan would probably agree with him.

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