Friday, February 6, 2015

Those Who Don't Learn From History

A march by right-wing German nationalist group PEGIDA. The banner reads:
"Nonviolent & United Against Faith Wars on German Soil!"
Notice the trash bin containing both an Islamic flag and a swastika.

Recent news coverage of anti-Islamic protests in Europe have begun trickling into America, possibly despite America's’ best efforts. Generally, if it doesn’t involve Downton Abbey or timeshares in Ibiza, it’s hard to get Americans interested in European events beneath the national election level. Yet recent rallies by Germany’s PEGIDA nationalist movement, or France’s frankly creepy Front National party, have disturbingly familiar textures. And they reflect worrisome prospects in America’s domestic politics, unless we keep watch.

Steve Wick’s The Long Night, a biography of pioneering journalist William Shirer, describes Shirer’s time in Europe after World War I. Arriving in Hemingway’s Paris, he knocked around, enjoying the same nightlife that America’s legendary expatriates recorded, while attempting to find stringer work for American newspapers. But sometime around 1930, Europe’s economy imploded. Shirer, working for Edward R. Murrow and NBC, watched the Europe he loved descend into street violence, serial blaming, and early fascism.

Wick, quoting Shirer, does better describing Europe’s decline than I could. But watching news arising from today’s EU, and its eerie parallels in certain American political sectors, the historical patterns defy easy dismissal. Lavish lifestyles, subsidized by hefty consumer debt, came crashing like Jenga pieces when creditors could loan nothing further. Those who profited from ill-considered acquisitions found what they’d acquired suddenly worthless. Seeking to shift blame off themselves, they sought a designated scapegoat class.

Both PEGIDA and the Tea Party claim no racial motivation whatsoever, as Hitler and Mussolini did; yet they seek scapegoats easily recognizable by external characteristics. Jews, Gypsies, Arabs, Mexicans—regardless of particulars, the visible themes remain. The population that enjoys power perceives itself newly powerless, and seeks another population to blame. Problems always originate somewhere else. Importantly, they believe themselves oppressed by this otherwise powerless minority, whether it’s “Jewish bankers” or “illegals stealing our jobs.”

Tzvetan Todorov acknowledges that the last several years have seen a resurgence in European race-based bigotry. Yet he insists this doesn’t mean a return to Depression-era Fascism, but rather closing the book on that historical gulf. One wonders how that works. PEGIDA and the Front National are repeating behaviors familiar from world history textbooks, which doesn’t exactly suggest winding back the clock. Indeed, since familiar behaviors follow familiar precursors, it’s naive to expect different outcomes.

A Front National campaign poster from 2010. It reads:
"Enough Anti-French Racism, We're At Home!"

Lutz Bachmann, leader of PEGIDA, was recently shamed into hiding after a photo surfaced of him posing as Hitler. PEGIDA, to its credit, disavowed Bachmann altogether. Yet the underlying thinking was all too visible. Certainly, to joke about Hitler doesn’t make one secretly fascist; considering my occasional Hitler, Archie Bunker, and Old South wisecracks, I cannot cast aspersions. Yet Bachmann didn’t just make this joke; he preserved it. He was only ashamed at getting caught.

Britain elected David Cameron PM, and Germany retained Angela Merkel, despite their policies being massively unpopular. France voted out Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French President turfed out after one term since 1981, but that basically involved French voters holding their noses while name-checking the other guy. Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigrant Front National, possibly Europe’s most overtly racist political force, came within ten points of final-round elections, reflecting French disaffection with the two mainstream parties.

On American shores, voters elected a wholly Republican Congress, while asking legislators to support policy platforms specifically opposite to the Republican agenda, apparently without irony. Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise continues trying to walk back sometime racist affiliations. Sarah Palin gets agitated whenever somebody points out far-right policies have lopsided racial implications, claiming anybody who notices racism is secretly racist. “States’ Rights,” that pre-Civil War shibboleth of people nerving themselves to treason, has seen uncanny resurgence.

For history readers, the pattern is unmistakable. Europe descended into fascism in the 1930s, and the principle enjoyed remarkable American popularity; the unabashedly pro-Hitler folk hero, Charles Lindbergh, was a presidential front-runner until the outbreak of European violence derailed him. The conditions that precipitated transnational fascism in 1933 exist today, in both Europe and America. The fact that similar responses have cropped up in multiple countries should persuade doubters that we have cause to worry.

History readers have the reassurance, though, that history is written. We know what happened before, and why; we know how similar circumstances have arisen today, and we have the capacity to say we won’t repeat yesterday’s disasters. Elected leaders, media professionals, economic touchstones, and ordinary citizens have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to stand fast against creeping fanaticism. We have the power to repeat, or resist, history’s tides. Our next steps depend entirely upon us.

A common Tea Party slogan. I shouldn't have to state the parallels.

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