Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 27, 2020

International Holocaust Day 2020

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It's the 75th anniversary this year.

Fresh Air's episode for the occasion features two good older interviews: a 2005 one with Laurence Rees on his book, Auschwitz: A New History, and an 1988 interview with Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016. The PBS NewsHour segment, "The lessons of Auschwitz, 75 years after its liberation," features some survivors revisiting the camp and some striking memories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website has an excellent primer on Auschwitz and other resources. (Going through the museum's permanent exhibit is a powerful experience.)

Although a solely historical post might be appropriate today, it feels more pressing to note current events. Hate crimes are on the rise in some areas, and the number of high-profile hate crimes in recent years is troubling. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tracks anti-Semitic incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a more general "hatewatch" page, and both organizations maintain "hate maps." FBI statistics for 2019 hate crimes aren't available yet, but the website has information from1995 through 2018, and as CNN summarizes, the 2018 report "collected data from 110 fewer agencies" but "found that 7,120 hate crime incidents were reported by law enforcement agencies to the FBI in 2018, just 55 fewer than had been reported in 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, the FBI found a 17% increase in reported incidents." Besides raw numbers, though, it's the overall efforts to intimidate marginalized groups that's disturbing.

A New York Times article from earlier this month reports that:

The number of anti-Semitic hate crimes recorded by authorities in Los Angeles has now doubled, thanks in part to those changes. But the rising numbers also mirror a trend seen in cities across the United States. A coming report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the nation’s three largest cities — are poised to hit an 18-year peak.

"It is something not seen in many years," said Brian Levin, the report’s lead author, referring to the fact that Jews in those three cities are now targeted as frequently as gay men and African-Americans in hate crimes. The report, which uses the most recent official police data, found that Jews in all three cities are being targeted at the highest numbers seen since 2001. . . .

"A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable,” Mr. Levin said. “Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust has simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and a diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older." . . .

[During Hanukkah], a man was charged with a hate crime in the stabbing of five Jews in Monsey, N.Y., at the home of a rabbi, and a gun battle at a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., left three people inside the store and a police officer dead.

Added to that picture of bigotry, the Trump administration tried several times to institute a "Muslim ban," a measure with dangerous historical precedents, and finally succeeded in June 2018. The ACLU, which has a good collection of personal stories of living with the Muslim ban, reports that the Trump administration is seeking to expand the Muslim ban, but also that Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi is introducing a "NO BAN Act" to reverse the Trump measures. (Not that the current, Republican-controlled Senate will approve the bill.) It's also worth revisiting Josh Marshall's July 2016 piece, "A Propagator of Race Hatred and Violence," about Trump falsely, grotesquely claiming that American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks and the World Trade Center falling. As Marshall notes, "authoritarian figures require violence and disorder," and Trump has made other statements that are "the kind of wild racist incitement that puts whole societies in danger."

Meanwhile, at the Southern border, asylum seekers are held in appalling conditions. The America Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly called for ending the family separation policy and for providing better care for the imprisoned children, and every firsthand report has been chilling. The conditions have been compared to theinfamous Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War and to concentration camps, by numerous people qualified to judge, including Holocaust survivors. The term itself is less important than the general dynamics; as one expert has explained:

"What's required is a little bit of demystification of it," says Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies historian and a lecturer at the University of Virginia. "Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they're putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way."

The awful conditions in the camps are not accidental. Trump has a long history of racism and started his campaign with a racist tirade against Mexicans. At least one of his staffers, Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller, is an extreme bigot and a driving force on Trump's immigration policies. As Adam Serwer has observed of the Trump administration as a whole, the cruelty is the point.

Finally, who can forget the "Unite the Right" rally of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, an alarming demonstration that lead to the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer? Trump initially condemned the rally, but he just couldn't stick to that script, and a mere one day later, went on to claim that "there's blame on both sides" and "very fine people on both sides." Later indignant claims by Trump and his supporters that he wasn't calling neo-Nazis and other white supremacists "very fine people" were far from convincing.

Trump, his administration and his supporters are far from the only problem. The United States has never been free of bigotry – slavery, as well as the killing and displacement of Native Americans, are central to our history. Institutionalized, systemic bigotry persists even without conscious, active support. But it does feel as if some of the progress of the past several decades has been rolled back, or at least that what had been underground is now increasingly out in the open. Barack Obama and his family were subjected to an alarming amount of despicable, racist attacks. And whatever Trump and his team think of themselves, black Americans overwhelmingly view Trump as racist and white supremacists think Trump is one of their own.

Most acts of evil don't rise to the level of genocide. But genocide always has precursors, none of which are ever positive and none of which should ever go unchallenged. Some Holocaust comparisons are appropriate. Most importantly, there's never a bad time to oppose bigotry and cruelty.

Update:: The New York Times reports that the Trump administration has issued press credentials to:

TruNews, a website aimed at conservative Christians whose founder, a pastor named Rick Wiles, recently described Trump’s impeachment as "a Jew coup" planned by "a Jewish cabal." . . .

TruNews, which Wiles founded as an online radio program in 1999 called America’s Hope, has a history of spreading conspiracy theories and proclaiming an imminent apocalypse. It drew more scrutiny in November after Wiles, in an online video, accused Jews of orchestrating Trump’s impeachment.

"That’s the way Jews work," Wiles said. "They are deceivers. They plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda. This ‘Impeach Trump’ movement is a Jew coup, and the American people better wake up to it really fast."

Wiles also warned his listeners that "when Jews take over a country, they kill millions of Christians."

Afterward, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida and Elaine Luria of Virginia wrote to the White House asking why TruNews had been allowed to attend presidential events. They did not receive a response.

In contrast, the Trump administration has banned CNN in the past and Trump's state department has recently banned NPR, most likely in an act of petulant retaliation. Apparently, the Trump administration views those organizations as a threat, but nominally Christian, far-right, anti-Semitic groups are welcome.

Monday, January 20, 2020

"I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."

It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and given the recent and familiar saber-rattling we've been hearing, this time agitating for a war with Iran, it seems like a good time to visit King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam." He delivered it at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year before he was assassinated. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has the text and audio, and it's nice to listen to his sonorous cadences. King took a significant risk in pushing back against concerns about political caution and instead spoke his conscience. Some of the references are very much tied to the era, but others remain all too timely.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
Digby has featured this speech before, emphasizing other good passages – it's full of them. And The New Yorker has a good piece from 2017 giving more background on crafting the speech and the political costs King knew it would incur. (It also covers John Lewis' memories of the speech.)

I appreciate that King linked war, and basically imperialism, to issues of class, race and lost opportunities in America. He received backlash for the speech, even though some passages of it are simpatico with that noted political radical, Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1953 asserted that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." King emphasized race much more, of course, which surely made some of his white audience uncomfortable. And many of his points unfortunately remain all too pertinent.

In the questions for this election cycle's primary debates and in political chatter in general, we're essentially told that war, and all military spending, is free. According to conservatives, tax cuts and other giveaways to the rich and powerful are free as well or otherwise a national boon, and such largess will theoretically trickle down to we the peons. Apparently, it's only health care, and other domestic programs that could benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans, that cost money and need to be interrogated. Perhaps some wars are indeed necessary, yet the same people most likely to recklessly agitate for them typically argue against even the possibility of new or better social programs domestically. "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor," said King. He wasn't fully appreciated in his lifetime, and his willingness to link the civil rights struggle to challenging other pervasive, oppressive notions is still not fully acknowledged now. As Cornel West put it, we should resist the "Santa Claus-ification" of King; it would be vanity to suppose we've already learned all he has to teach us.