The most painful thing I have had the misfortune to read recently is conservative commentary on the Park 51 project, now forever to be known, thanks to it, as “The Ground Zero Mosque.” A recent post below tried to articulate how I think about this issue: briefly, we have this image of the Nazis as Hollywood villains, rubbing their hands together and saying “bwa-ha-ha! What can we do to cause death and suffering to as many helpless and innocent people as possible, in the name of manifestly preposterous biological theories?” And as long as we have this view, we will never be able to use the Nazis as a means of moral reflection, we will never be able to see ourselves in them to any degree. At best we will be able to draw strained analogies between them and things we disapprove of, like health care reform.
What I tried to do in that post was to make clear that many Germans feared and resented the Jews because of false beliefs they held about the ways that the Jews had harmed them. Germans believed that “the Jews” (i. e., capitalism) had caused the Great Depression, that “the Jews” (i.e., liberals) had caused them to lose World War I by orchestrating premature surrender, and that “the Jews” (communism) had taken over Russia, and was on the march and would soon engulf the civilized world in tyranny and destruction. Last but not least, “the Jews” (actually, as it happened, the Nazis themselves) had destroyed a building of great public significance in the heart of the nation’s greatest city in an outrageous act of terrorism. All this from a people curiously, disturbingly different, yet living in their midst.
Each of these antisemitic canards was facilitated by, I wouldn’t call it “elements of truth,” but simple faulty inferences and generalizations. Were there some wealthy Jews? Sure. Were there some Jewish civil servants at the close of World War I? Of course. Did some Jews welcome the Russian Revolution hopefully, thinking that perhaps now they would see an end to persecution and pogroms? Yes. The leap, of course, is from identifying oneself as an individual with a group, identifying individual others with a group, and then attributing the actions of some individuals against other individuals as actions between the groups. At the end of the day, a German SS officer can seriously look in the face of a sixteen year old girl and think: she is trying to kill me, but for safety’s sake, I will protect myself and my homeland. I will kill her first.
If we understood this, then we would be rightly deeply disturbed by the precisely similar psychology circulating in our country today. But we do not understand this, even though (one would think) the unnervingly familiar image of hatred directed at an ethnic minority of non-Christian monotheists ought to have suggested some parallels. OK, I’m done with calling attention to the obvious, as it seems that a remarkably large number of people in this country are simply incapable of seeing it, which, to my mind means that World War Two was fought, by us at least, for essentially nothing. What I want to understand is, why are we incapable of seeing this?
Certainly the promiscuous use of Nazi parallels in conservative discourse plays a role. I attribute this to the slow but steady influence of Ayn Rand on modern conservatism. It was Ayn Rand who once compared John F. Kennedy to Hitler to make a point (that calls for national self-sacrifice are dangerous), but we now live in a world in which political disagreements between ideological factions in a democracy are routinely likened to Nazism on the march.
But despite all the nonsense about racism in the Tea Party that otherwise intelligent people have written, the subtext of our complete blindness to the disturbing turn we have taken that the mosque controversy manifests, is ultimately about race.
How so? First, in an attempt to make American sense of Nazism, Americans framed the Nazis as being primarily racists. Now of course they were “racists” in the dictionary sense, deplorably so, but that does not mean that when a Nazi contemplated Judaism, his thought processes and emotions were indistinguishable from those of a white American racist toward black Americans. In fact, they were utterly different. Jews were not perceived as inferiors fit only for condescension and servitude. Jews were perceived as in some sense identical with wealth, economic distress, national humiliation, terrorism, totalitarianism (ironic, no?), false religiosity, liberalism, irony and sophistication, non-assimilation. Nazi racialism was in large measure an attempt to rationalize antipathies formed in other ways and for other reasons. That, at least, is my understanding of the matter.
Back to America. Until the 1960s, I imagine, much of this country was more or less indifferent to the burdens our society had placed on African-Americans. One of the various transformative movements of the 1960s was an attempt to change this, nonviolently, through an appeal to the conscience of white America. This was essentially a good thing and its fruits have been largely good too, but it has had a peculiar effect on us. For one thing, the canard about “white liberal guilt.” Conservatives mock liberals for being wussily more prone to irrational guilt. Of course, this obscures the fundamental issue: one should feel guilty if one has done something wrong. It’s one of the ways we make ourselves and each other stop doing wrong things. Jim Crow was wrong. Those who supported it should’ve felt guilty; those who passively tolerated it, somewhat less so. And to the extent that we have overcome, we should all feel rightly proud of how far we have come. To accuse those who have a conscience of weakness is the most pathetic form of schoolyard bullying, coupled with moral obtuseness.
But more significantly, it has fueled the image of the white liberal who wants you to feel guilty. Now another aspect of the 1960s was a kind of revolution against guilt, championed initially by the Left and on behalf of a new valorization of sexuality. Though I haven’t heard the expression in a long time, I recall growing up hearing the term “guilt-tripping”: the manipulative act of aggression that enlists the conscience as a psychic fifth column in the other to one’s own nefarious purposes. And much of our politics since then has been defined by a refusal of guilt (e. g., feminism and gay rights). This militant refusal of guilt ultimately found its way into conservatism as a protective mechanism against liberal appeals to conscience about racism, and from there it has metastasized. Initially, this refusal of guilt was sheer defensiveness. But as progress toward equality proceeded, and later generations began to grow up in a world not drenched in tacit anti-black racism, these appeals to conscience began to find a genuinely guiltless audience. For young people who were not brought up to be racists, by now a significant percentage of the American public I suspect, these increasingly antiquated appeals began to look like… guilt-tripping. Since a Nietzschean critique of guilt was central to Ayn Rand’s thought, as her subterranean influence on modern conservatism ramified and spread, along with it spread the idea that liberalism is essentially a tactic by socialists to make you feel guilty about being alive. One of the latest examples is the idea that global warming is a myth designed to make you feel guilty about being a consumer.
And so for what I suspect is a very large audience, the word “racism” triggers this instant quasi-Nietzschean critique and immediate personal rebellion. “You are trying to make me think of myself as a Jim Crow era Southern racist! You will not manipulate me that way! I won’t stand for it!”
One last piece of the puzzle. Since the 1970s, there has been a gradual process of purging conservatism of its crypto-anti-semitism and replacing it with its opposite. The reasons for this are various and mutually reinforcing, though much of it has to do with our perception of Israel changing into one of a Cold War ally.
So: conservative leaders try to stir up some paranoia about Muslim-Americans, playing almost every card the Nazis ever played about the Jews. But not “the race card” as we now call it. No one has accused Muslims of having a Muslim gene that makes them inferior to whites yet nonetheless dangerous. Those of us who see this thing clearly have called attention to, with increasing concern, the Nazi-like character of the anti-Muslim canards that are now circulating. What’s the response?
“I am not a Nazi because the defining characteristic of Nazism is racism. Racism is where you make black people sit in the back of a bus. I am not doing that. Rather, what you are doing is the classic liberal guilt trip, only this time, instead of using it to get me to lie down to welfare cheats, you’re using it to get me to lie down to Terrorists Who Are Trying To Kill Me. And the accusation is manifestly absurd: the Nazis were antisemites, but I’m pro-Israel.”
So it turns out to be about race after all.