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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A look at the human race you might not want to see

Seventy years after the end of World War II,  the French are releasing documents of the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of France.  Some people, the New York Times account reports, have looked at the documents for evidence of how their relatives resisted the Nazis, only to find that they were, in fact, collaborators.  For those people who believed that their heritage was one of heroic resistance to the perpetrators of the Holocaust only to find from documents that was not so, it is a wrenching time.  

The Scandinavian countries produce stories about their resistance to the Nazis.  Many such stories are true.  But so are stories about those who collaborated with the Nazis. Those stories of collaboration and intense fascist hatreds in part of the Swedish population, for example, were revived when the late writer Stieg Larsson launched his millennial trilogy  with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Although a fiction, the book portrayed and presented a reality not often confronted.

As an undergraduate at a college with Swedish Lutheran origins, the stories of collaborators and sympathizers with the Nazis were familiar to me.   Some of the professors and students--World War II veterans on the G.I. Bill were on campus--warned that some professors had racist sympathies that tended toward Nordic purity.  The response by the majority of the professors and students was not to mention those partialities.  The idea seemed to be that if they were ignored, they would go away.  But  racial hatreds are like the shingle virus that is left in the body from chicken pox.  They lie dormant but can break out with a virulence after decades.

We've found that out when Barack Obama became president.  Tea Partiers produced posters of him as a witch doctor.  Racist jokes circulated through their e-mails.  And those who had been restrained from displaying racial hatreds became emboldened.  They could put a facade of political disagreement over their expressions of racist hatred, but the pretenses are belied by the intensity of the hatred.  

The advent of Donald Trump has encouraged people to express themselves more directly, and while journalistic analysts attribute the hatefulness to the frustrations of a middle class under attack,  many of his supporters are giving true voice to hate-based philosophies and attitudes.  

Places such as Grand Forks, North Dakota, a fairly peaceful university town, have felt the effects of America's contemporary racism.   Grand Forks has a contingent of Somali people, and a restaurant run and patronized by Somalis was fire-bombed earlier this month.  At a public hearing on race relations, one citizen said,  “We don’t need to learn about the cultures these refugees left behind.  Another said with others applauding in agreement, "This town’s built by white people.  Not by blacks. Not by Mexicans. Not by Indians.”

That fire-bombing was a part of what is America's Kristal Nacht.   The questions are how many Americans can see their fellow citizens for what they are, and if and how they will react? 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The U.S. is repeating the history of 1930s Germany; it's the will of a lot of people

Begin with Donald Trump.  He is the quintessential asshole, albeit unusually productive with what assholes produce.  He is everything that is an offense to intelligent society.  He brags.  He belittles.  He insults.  He is sexist.  He is racist.  He lies. He doubles down on his lies when they are proven untrue.  He demands apologies when people point out his lies.  He is ignorant.  Stupendously ignorant.  Remarkably stupid.  He is demonstrably dishonest.  He flaunts his wealth.  He has no redeeming characteristics.  But he leads in the popularity polls for GOP presidential candidates.  


Because he appeals to a large segment of the people.  

As a soldier stationed in Germany, I, like many of my fellows in arms, was wary and skeptical about how much the people supported Hitler and the Nazi regime.  When my unit, which was bringing guided missiles to Germany, landed in Frankfort, there were protestors outside the airbase with signs saying "Sputnik go home."  Many of the German people showed resentment toward us.  We were trained to be friendly and helpful to the German people and not to bring up the Nazi past, but among ourselves we wondered if Hitler was not just what the people wanted. At the time, which was twelve years after Germany surrendered, we were aware that there were underground Nazi sympathizers around, but the U.S. was more concerned at the time about some Marxist groups forming what later became known as the Red Army Faction.  However, the official U.S. position was that the vast majority of Germans were good, peace-loving, hard-working people who had been duped and intimidated by the Third Reich and were happy to be liberated from that regime's rule.  

A woman who I got to know graduated from a U.S. military high school in Germany while her father was stationed there in the Air Force, became fluent in German, and became friends with many German students through cooperative programs her school had with German schools.  Her friendships sparked curiosity in her about just what the attitude was among the older generations regarding the Nazi regime.  Her contemporaries were sensitive about the Nazi past and avoided much query about what the attitudes of the elders had been.  Years later, she graduated from a college which required a senior thesis for graduation.  She returned to Germany and wrote about how the Germans responded to the Nazi history.  She found evidence which suggested that the Germans had to have known that a holocaust was taking place and that many people supported and collaborated with the Nazis.
A 2001 book, The Good German by Joesph Kanon  took up the issue and sparked a film starring George Clooney and a number of similar works that examined the collaborations and support of the Nazis by the German people and the glossing over of those relationships during the Cold War.    

Hilter had a legitimate political appeal to the Germans.  They were  hit hard by the Great Depression and were struggling economically.  Hitler promised measures to lift Germany  out of the depression.  He also appealed to national pride.  Much like Trump promises to "make America great again," Hilter promised to "make Germany proud again."  

However, he also provided scapegoats for the problems faced by Germans by blaming all the ills faced by the people on the Jews and other minorities.  After the surrender of Germany in 1945,  a claim by the German people was that they didn't know about the Holocaust taking place and the extermination of the Jews.  That claim has been refuted.  The German press during the war was full of reports about the program against the Jews.  Tump and some of his cohorts in candidacy also lavishes the public with scapegoats to  blame and persecute.  

The Holocaust is the human act through which we define atrocities.  It is true that ignorant and petty people invoke Hitler and the Holocaust in stupid and specious ways in their discussions,  producing Godwin's law:  "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."  Some have contorted the law into claiming that anyone who invokes the Nazi past in an argument loses it.  But that is merely a ploy to avoid referencing the deliberate atrocity when it does parallel gross mental and moral failures of humankind in our time.   

Trump is one of those failures.  His claims about America becoming a nation of "losers" is not supported by any factual measures of the nation's economic status or its reputation among other nations.   As far as American exceptionalism is concerned,  many nations have surpassed it in terms of providing a high standard of living for all, for extending liberty, for making equality more than a slogan, and for making justice available to all.  If America has elements of decline,  they are in the inequality and in the malevolence against other humans   caused by the likes of Donal Trump.  

But what is significant about Trump is not his character and personality, but the number of people who seek refuge behind his inane bullying.  They do not represent what is good and admirable about America.

But in failures of moral character and intellectual competence,  Trump is only the leader of a pack.  His fellow GOP candidates are for the most part raging hate mongers.  One of the things they hate is Barack Obama.  The election of a black man to the presidency has excited old racial hatreds and made them a prominent part of American life again.  For a time after the civil rights movement, overt expressions of racial hatred were suppressed.  However, we  now live in a time when people feel no compunction about expressing racist attitudes.  They can say that they are expressing disagreement with the policies of a president who happens to be black.  But the belligerence and raging hatred with which those disagreements are expressed unveil the deep malignancy of racism and intolerance.  Trump,  the practiced playground bully,  knows how to tap into this malignancy and provide a voice for those who are possessed by it.  HIs fellow candidates follow suit.

One of the things that works with these mentalities is to affirm their hatreds by making up incidents that never occurred.  Trump insists that he saw on television Muslims in New Jersey cheering and celebrating the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  Fact checkers and news media have shown that there is no record of such celebrations having taken place, but Trump insists he saw it and that is evidence enough for those who want to believe it.  Much of what Trump claims is made up and false, but that facts and honesty do not matter with his supporters.  The false claims feed their malice and their need to defame and persecute.  It creates the illusion in their limited minds that they are not the lowest creatures in the human dog pack.

In the devout belief in things that never happened department,  Carly Fiorina comes in at a close second.  She claims to have seen a video of Planned Parenthood personnel dissecting a baby, although she cannot provide evidence of any such video existing and journalists have established that it never did exist.  Still, Fiorina,  like Trump, insists she saw it, and that satisfies the malevolent craving of those who need something to hate and defame.  

Other in the GOP candidate cohort also show great talent in errors and falsehoods of fact and an underlying misanthropy at the root of their political philosophies.  Ted Cruz says he'll carpet bomb ISIS out of existence,  but Cruz has buried himself so deep in raving offense that even his Republican fellow senators detest him

Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and many of the lesser lights have also had their moments in trying to lead the nation in its rituals of hate and falsehood.  But the real significance is in the number of Americans who put up with it and even revel in it.  

In the mid-1930s,  Sinclair Lewis wrote a satiric novel, It Can't Happen Here, which showed that the same kind of mentality that was taking over Germany existed and was operating in America.  

It's happening again.   With a vengeance.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States