Saturday, March 12, 2016

Violence Begets Violence -- Just the Way They Like It

[Script reads: "We Are Creating the New Germany! Remember the victims -- Vote the National Socialist List 1".]
Watching the scenes unfold last night from Chicago and elsewhere, it became obvious that, largely as many of us have feared, Donald Trump is indeed leading the United States merrily down the path to an outbreak of actual, genuine fascism, all without himself being a hardened fascist ideologue, but rather a right-wing populist demagogue. But then again, the two phenomena are only degrees apart, and that is what we are now seeing on the streets of the American political landscape.

Of course, while it was fairly clear that the protesters were peaceful until attacked by the Trump rally-goers, the reality also was that fighting eventually broke out on all sides and there was violence all around. Naturally, that meant that the media were already out there flogging their favorite "both sides do it" narrative.

Never mind, of course, that Trump has specifically encouraged the violence, telling reporters at a press conference that "we need a little bit more of that."

The story we'll be fed as at least "the other side" will be Trump's: that the leftist "thugs" were responsible for the violence. And we all can see where this is going: As justification for further and more intense violence.

There is a long history of this with the fascist and proto-fascist right. Indeed, martyrdom at the hands of the "violent left" was a cornerstone of early Nazi propaganda, of which the above poster is only a small sample.

 From State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, by Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach, pp. 48-50:

In the final years of the Weimar Republic, Germany was mired in a grave political and economic crisis that left the society verging on civil war. Street violence by paramilitary organizations on the Left and the Right increased sharply. In the final ten days of the July 1932 parliamentary elections, Prussian authorities reported three hundred acts of politically motivated violence that left twenty-four people dead and almost three hundred injured. In the Nazi campaigns, propaganda and terror were closely linked. In Berlin, Nazi Party leader Joseph Goebbels intentionally provoked Communist and Social Democratic actions by marching SA [Brownshirt] storm troopers into working-class neighborhoods where those parties had strongholds. Then he invoked the heroism of the Nazi "martyrs" who were injured or killed in these battles to garner greater public attention. Nazi newspapers, photographs, films, and later paintings dramatized the exploits of these fighters. The "Horst Wessel Song," bearing the name of the twenty-three-year-old storm trooper and protege of Goebbels who was killed in 1930, became the Nazi hymn. The well-publicized image of the SA-man with a bandaged head, a stirring reminder of his combat against the "Marxists" (along with other portrayals of muscular, oversized storm troopers), became standard in party propaganda. In the first eight months of 1932, the Nazis claimed that seventy "martyrs" had fallen in battle against the enemy. Such heroic depictions -- set against the grim realities of chronic unemployment and underemployment for young people during the Weimar period -- no doubt helped increase membership in the SA units, which expanded in Berlin from 450 men in 1926 to some 32,000 by January 1933.
These are the lyrics of the Horst Wessel Lied:
The flag on high! The ranks tightly closed!
The SA marches with quiet, steady step.
Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks.
Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks.
Clear the streets for the brown battalions,
Clear the streets for the storm division!
Millions are looking upon the swastika full of hope,
The day of freedom and of bread dawns!
Millions are looking upon the swastika full of hope,
The day of freedom and of bread dawns!
For the last time, the call to arms is sounded!
For the fight, we all stand prepared!
Already Hitler's banners fly over all streets.
The time of bondage will last but a little while now!
Already Hitler's banners fly over all streets.
The time of bondage will last but a little while now.
The flag on high! The ranks tightly closed!
The SA march with quiet, steady step.
Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries,
March in spirit within our ranks.
Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries,
March in spirit within our ranks.
Wessel was a young brownshirt with a noted propensity for violence who was shot in the face one night, and the murder was blamed on Communists. Wessel's funeral was a kind of coming-out party for the propaganda apparatus of Josef Goebbels:
Goebbels continue to use the "martyrdom" of Wessel as a propaganda device for years, including in January 1933, when "an enormous procession ... led by Hitler, Goebbels, Röhm, and other top officials of the NSDAP,... marched to the St. Nicholas Cemetery ..[where] Hitler spoke of Wessel's death as a symbolic sacrifice, and dedicated a memorial to him[31] Wessel's name was frequently invoked by the Nazis to bolster core tenets of National Socialist ideology during the remaining existence of the Third Reich:
Comrades who found their way to the Führer through him and who fought the Red subhumans at his side. Comrades who were with him daily and knew him best ... "the hero of the Brown Revolution." His sacrificial death inspired and passionately inflamed millions who followed. The spirit of Horst Wessel is today the driving force behind the struggle for freedom of the armed services and the homeland of the Greater German Reich.
— An article from the Nazi-owned Völkischer Beobachter newspaper encouraging German soldiers during the war.[32]
 This was essentially a variation on a rhetorical tactic known as "the bloody shirt" whose entire purpose, historically speaking, has been to make victims out of the perpetrators of violence, and to make its victims out to be its perpetrators -- in other words, to invert reality on its head, and in doing so, justify further violence against its victims.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of  "waving the bloody shirt" -- "the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes to inspire support or avoid criticism."
... In American history, it gained popularity with an incident in which Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts, when making a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, allegedly held up the shirt of a carpetbagger whipped by the Ku Klux Klan.
That's not the half of it. Stephen Budiansky, in his amazing book The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, has the rest of the story (excerpted in the New York Times):
The sequel was this—or at least this was the story everyone in Monroe County believed, and in time everyone in Mississippi and the whole South had heard it, too. That a U.S. Army lieutenant who was stationed nearby recovered the bloody night-shirt that Huggins had worn that night, and he carried it to Washington, D.C., and there he presented it to congressman Benjamin F. Butler, and in a fiery speech on the floor of the United States Congress a few weeks later in which he denounced Southern outrages and called for passage of a bill to give the federal government the power to break the Ku Klux terror, Butler had literally waved this blood-stained token of a Northern man’s suffering at the hand of the Ku Klux. And so was born the memorable phrase, “waving the bloody shirt.”

Waving the bloody shirt: it would become the standard retort, the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years. The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era. It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had. The phrase has since entered the standard American political lexicon, a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities.

That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were so unconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their own criminality, however, seems remarkable; for whoever was waving the shirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of just whose blood it was, and how it had got there. That white Southerners would unabashedly trace the origin of this metaphor to a real incident involving an unprovoked attack of savage barbarity carried out by their own most respectable members of Southern white society makes it all the more astonishing.

Most astonishing of all was the fact that the whole business about Allen Huggins’s bloody shirt being carried to Washington and waved on the House floor by Benjamin Butler was a fiction.

The story about Huggins being whipped by the Ku Klux was true enough. Huggins was whipped on that bright moonlit night so ferociously that he could barely walk for a week or two afterward, so ferociously that in a burning anger that overcame any fear of his own death he traveled to Washington to testify before Congress and then returned to Monroe County with a deputy U.S. marshal’s badge and a determination to arrest every man he could lay his hands on who had been a part of the reign of Ku Klux murder and terror in those parts. And Benjamin Butler—“Beast Butler,” as he was invariably called in the Southern press, the man who had committed the unpardonable insult against Southern womanhood as the Union occupation commander in New Orleans during the war with his order that the next Southern woman who insulted his troops on the street would be “regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation”— this nemesis of the South, now a congressman from Massachusetts, did indeed make a long, impassioned speech about the Ku Klux outrages on the House floor that April, and did tell the story of Huggins’s brutal beating in the course of it.

But nowhere in the Congressional Globe’s transcripts of every word that was uttered on the House floor is there any allusion to a bloody shirt; nowhere in the press accounts of the leading papers of the time is there any mention of a crazed congressman waving a blood-stained garment, on the floor or off; nowhere in any reports of Huggins’s appearances before Congress does such a story appear. That part never happened.

What was more, this was not the first time that Southerners had invented the fiction that Northerners were given to making fetishes of blood-stained tokens of their victimhood at Southern hands. The same story had cropped up fifteen years earlier in connection with another Massachusetts politician equally reviled in the South, Senator Charles Sumner.

Once again the beating was a fact, the alleged Northern reaction to it a fantasy. Furious at the insult to Southern honor Sumner had committed in a speech attacking slavery and the morality of the slave owner, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks had approached Sumner in the Senate chamber, stood over his desk, and beat him on the head thirty times with his gold-headed cane until Sumner crumpled to the floor in a pool of his own blood.

And sure enough, Southerners were soon saying that Sumner’s bloody coat had become a revered “holy relic” in Yankee and abolitionist circles. Sumner, they said, had carried his own blood-encrusted garment to England to show the Duchess of Argyle, when she invited him to dinner; had placed it in the hands of an awe-struck John Brown, before his fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry; had put it on public display in Exeter Hall. “All the abject whines of Mr. Sumner, for being well whipped,” wrote one Southerner in 1856, a few months after the event, “all the exhibitions of his bloody shirt to stale Boston virgins who, in vexation of having failed to secure a man, would now wed a Sumner, have proved futile.” Years later, years after the Civil War, scornful stories about Northerners exhibiting Sumner’s bloody shirt were still being circulated in the South. Not a scrap of it was true.

A footnote, but a telling one: To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. The outrage was never the “manly” inflicting of “well-deserved” punishment on poltroons, only the craven and sniveling whines of the recipients of their wrath. And the outrage was never the violent defense of “honor” by the aristocrat, only the vulgar rabble-rousing by his social inferior. “The only article the North can retain for herself is that white feather which she has won in every skirmish,” declared one Southerner, speaking of the Sumner–Brooks affair. Only a coward would revel in a token of his own defeat.

The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it. The mere suggestion that a partisan motive was behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.
 In other words, this is a tactic that is already deeply embedded within American conservatism -- every right-wing pundit from Bill O'Reilly to Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh has trotted out a version of it in the past eight years or more. The right's persecution complex is one of its most enduring and overpowering traits.

And now Trump is tapping into this projection-fueled trait on behalf of his far-right populist and nationalist agenda. So it's very clear how this is going to play out -- especially with a compliant media always eager to provide "balance" to their reportage: Any kind of violence, even defensive or responsive, from Trump's opponents is going to be used as an excuse to escalate, ad infinitum.

This is a very dangerous time, and progressives are going to have to be smart about how they confront this tactic, which is going to happen increasingly as the election year drags along. They are going to have to be incredibly disciplined, and incredibly committed to nonviolence when confronted with the viciousness of the budding Brownshirts on the other side.

And I'm not among the optimistic that this will be the case. Please prove me wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment