A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
When I went back to Llano, Texas for my sister’s funeral a dozen years ago, I was surprised that the Baptist church was full of Latinos. But then I realized that two of my brothers had married Latinas, and these courteous and loving people were my extended family. When I was growing up, we were supposed to hate Mexicans, and now, I realized, we are Mexican.
My family is multi-ethnic by birth and by choice. On my mother’s side, we are Irish, English, French, and Cherokee. On my father’s side we are Scot-Irish, Dutch, and French. My mother’s sister married a Syrian, and I grew up with my Arab-American cousins. My wife and I now live in a racially-mixed working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Right now, looking out my study window, I see black and white kids playing together in my neighbor’s yard. My wife, a naturalized citizen originally from Germany, is a community psychologist who works in an African-American neighborhood. My daughter’s boyfriend is Jewish, we have family members who are gay, and many of my wife’s students and colleagues at the university are Asian, Hispanic, or African-American.
And now into this multi-cultural tapestry swagger Trump and his followers creating an escalating series of racist and sexist incidents that affect my family and threaten the very fabric of American life. When Donald Trump claimed during the campaign that Mexicans are rapists, he insulted the kind people who came to my sister’s funeral. When he bragged about grabbing women by the genitalia, he was talking about my wife and my daughter. When North Dakota State police, acting on behalf of DAPL, a company owned in part by Trump, recently shot Native American protesters with a water cannon in freezing weather, attacked them with clubs and mace, arrested them and put them in dog kennels, they were assaulting people like my Cherokee cousins. When Trump’s advisors floated the idea of a national registry of Muslims, I feared for my neighbors and my wife’s students. When the alt-right National Policy Institute held a rally down the street from the White House, chanting Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory! and the leader of the Institute quoted Goebbels, they were evoking the horror of Germany’s Nazi era that my wife’s parents endured. When CNN hosted an on-air debate on whether it would be politically expedient for Trump to distance himself from the KKK and neo-Nazis that helped elect him, I became terrified for my family, my friends, and my country. And when Donald Trump recruited white supremacist Steve Bannon to run his campaign and then appointed Bannon as his special advisor, I finally became aware that we’ve seen nothing less than a fascist take-over of America.
The Path to Power
After Hitler was democratically elected in 1932, there was an attempt by the German establishment to normalize him. The press ran extensive coverage of the adoring crowds at his rallies. Public figures lined up to be photographed with the Great Leader. He was widely seen in Germany and abroad as a man who could bring the country back from the economic chaos and international humiliation that had followed World War One. His racist, anti-Semitic language of the previous decade was dismissed as being merely a strategy to gain office, and now that he was the Chancellor, he would surely be more dignified and restrained.
Meanwhile, thugs sympathetic to Hitler carried out a systematic program of harassing, beating, and killing Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, immigrants, leftists, union organizers, teachers, writers, artists, and intellectuals. Some of these gangs were organized as a branch of the Nazi Party known as the SA, but many racists acted on their own, seeing the election of Hitler as license to act out their sick fantasies. As the Nazi Party grew in power, emergency measures were enacted limiting speech and public gatherings. An extensive network of informers was built, and people who were seen as troublemakers were arrested. And when the Nazis had control of the government, the police, the press, the military, and the public culture, and the people were completely obedient, the mass incarceration of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and dissenters began.
Through this devolution of society, most Germans simply went on with their lives, working their jobs, celebrating birthdays, and keeping their mouths shut. There was a high price for speaking out. My wife’s grandfather had an upstairs tenant who was dragged out of his apartment by Gestapo officers because a neighbor informed the authorities that he’d made a joke about Hitler. The man spent six months in prison.
Where Are We Now?
So if we see the German experience as an example to heed, where is America now in this downward spiral?
There is certainly an attempt to normalize Trump. Of course, we expect this strategy from Republican Party leaders who tell us to give him a chance. What is disturbing, though, is that Oprah Winfrey, an influential celebrity with solid progressive credentials, said that the election to the highest office in the land had made Trump humble and she is now hopeful about his presidency. And mainstream journalists have joined the Trump parade as well. For example, Leslie Stahl interviewed the president-elect on 60 minutes, asking him softball questions and inviting him to revise offensive comments he made during the campaign.
Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports an increase in hate crimes, many of them referring to Trump or using slogans from his campaign. There were four hundred and thirty-seven incidents of intimidation reported in the week after the election, a steep increase from previous weeks. A wide range of people were targeted, including blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants, the L.G.B.T. community, and women. Such harassment occurred throughout Trump’s campaign, but now has increased, no doubt empowered by the election of a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed candidate who has denigrated women and minorities.
Let’s see… the election of a racist leader, an attempt by the establishment to normalize him, and his thugs targeting scapegoats… It sounds like America is approximately in the same place that Germany was in 1932, the beginning of the Nazi era.
What Should We Do?
So what should progressives do in these extreme times? Well, one thing we can do is not to tolerate hate language. If you hear someone refer to Muslims as terrorists, or immigrants as criminals, or gay people as perverts, call him out. We are not going to be able to make people less racist or intolerant, but at least we can make it clear that this kind of attitude should go back into the filthy closet where it belongs.
Something else we can do is to donate money and time to the organizations that are fighting for our rights. My personal favorite is the ACLU, which defines itself as a nonprofit law firm with one client – the United States Constitution. There are also many environmental organizations fighting the good fight. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the World Wide Fund for Nature are well-respected advocates. For minority rights, I recommend the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There are also myriad local organizations that are working hard for peace and justice. In Pittsburgh, for example, we have the Thomas Merton Center. Find out what progressive organizations are doing good work in your community. Choose a cause and commit to it.
Staying informed is important as well. Although mainstream news organizations have been largely co-opted, as we saw in Leslie Stahl’s interview with Trump, there are many progressive publications which are still effective as a counter-balance to the rightward trend. Mother Jones, TruthDig, Slate, and Common Dreams present objective reporting on current events, as well as reasonable interpretations.
The most important thing we can do is to stay vigilant and disobedient. Don’t make the mistake that most Germans made in normalizing Hitler. Don’t stay silent. Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and religious intolerance are personal. Trump and his followers are attacking my family. And if you have any family members who are not straight white Christian males, then your family is being attacked as well.
Copyright 2016 Michael Simms