A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
It was St. Patrick’s Day weekend in 2016, and I was out in my garden digging the ground in preparation for the spring planting season. The day was warm, and I saw young people out on the sidewalk decked out in green top-hats and t-shirts making their way to Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and the revelries downtown. They were laughing and talking and seemed to have a good time. I remembered that during my student years I joined the St. Paddy’s Day parade in Dallas, Texas dressed as an Irish fairy with wings made from coat-hangers and an old bedsheet. I was told that on that day we were all Irish, even I as a German, and I happily danced and blew kisses in front of our home-made float with the poet Gerald Burns, decked out in mitre and chasuble, officiating over the celebration.
I kept digging, happy with my memories of an America where we all could be Irish in March, Mexican on Cinque De Mayo, African American on MLK day, and Italian whenever the neighborhood of Bloomfield had their street festival. A chorus of male voices wafted over from one of the backyards behind ours, and I realized that they were singing a German folk-song. I was amazed to hear my native language raised in song, and I hummed along. The song ended, and I looked forward to the next tune. But what blew over from below was “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!” I froze and stopped my shovel in mid-swing. I could not believe what I had just heard. This is America, my chosen home that prides itself on freedom, inclusion, and democratic idealism. And a nest of neo-Nazis felt that finally, during the ascendancy of Trump in the 2016 election, they had the liberty to publicly spout Nazi propaganda.
I have lived in the US for almost 40 years, and I had never seen this blatant and public glorification of German fascism. What has changed in American life that such a thing can be possible? Are we not the good people of Hogan’s Heroes and the Nazis the horrible people over there, and we despise their narrow obedience and abhor their amoral, evil deeds? We beat them in WW II and thought we were done with them. But now Nazi racism and brutality are raising their ugly voices in our own neighborhoods.
Fascist sentiments have been part of American life for a long time. Racism, eugenics, the call for a strong-man leader, empire-building militarism, and the curtailing of individual civil rights and liberties are all part of modern American history. But we always seemed to be ashamed of them on some level, and the people who advocated for them did so in niches and hidden corners of our public discourse. No longer: since St. Patrick’s Day 2016 — which now seems to me like the canary in the coal-mine — fascists feel perfectly free to bring their ideology and their force into our public life and claim that they represent a large number of people and that they have a valid political position.
But what they want is not political discourse. Political discourse respects the other and engages in free debate and democratic deliberation. It is built on a carefully balanced system of powers that our constitutional history has established and it pre-supposes a social contract between citizens: we agree to respect and follow the law. Underlying this is a sense of decency that goes even beyond legal constraints: we believe that goodness has an intrinsic value, and we treat each other as basically good people. A free society is a society where people can live their daily lives without fear of government violence against citizens. However, what the Nazi’s want is not a free, democratic, decent society. They want a dictator, a one party system, world-domination, the erasure of races that are not white, and the brutal exercise of power over any citizen.
We saw in Germany what that led to: paranoia and rumor ruled the neighborhoods, and your neighbors were carted off in the middle of the night never to be seen again. You could have been next. You were drafted into quagmire wars in Russian steppes where you or your brothers or your sons lost your lives, or you were herded to the SS breeding farms to “Give the fuehrer a child” to strengthen white supremacy. Your children with down syndrome were first sent to psychiatric hospitals, and then they vanished; their death certificates all had the same day on them. Your parents, your children, your husbands were sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka, where they said “Arbeit macht Frei” but where an endless cloud of fumes came from the gas ovens and hung over the land. At the end your cities were in rubble, your people were starving, and you looked at the ruin of your civilization and wondered how ever did we get here?
This is where fascism is headed. It is brutal, misogynistic, racist, anti-democratic, and megalomaniacal. Neo-Nazi ideology is not normal and is not a valid political position in America.
Copyright 2017 Eva-Maria Simms
Dr. Eva-Maria Simms is Adrian van Kaam professor of psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.