Weekend Roundup: America Beyond The Pale



“Nostalgia, including its hateful cast, emerges only when the past is just about over,” I write this week in a short essay for The Washington Post. “The idea of the supremacy of the pale race,” I argue, “is not only an immoral, but also a historically obsolete, proposition in contemporary America. … California is already a majority-minority state,” and the rest of the country will follow suit by the middle of the century.

In better times, America’s political leaders have extolled this diversity as the country’s greatest strength. I cite at some length former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who summed it up best in a recent conversation with me: “We know from the human genome that all people are 99.5 percent the same. Some people seem to spend 99 percent of their time worrying about the .5 percent that is different. That is a big mistake. We should focus on what we have in common. And focus on what is common. We make better decisions in diverse societies than in homogenous ones. America’s great advantage is that we are an idea, not a place. We are not an ethnicity or a uniform culture.”

Clinton also warned of the dangers of the nativist narrative that has recently arisen: “We are playing Russian roulette with our biggest ticket to the future. Even if you believe we are headed toward the first big change since the industrial revolution with robots and digital technology that will kill more jobs than it creates, we are still going to need diversity. We are going to need creative cooperation. To do that we need some fair back and forth with others not like us. Resentment-based divisive politics is a mistake.” But, as the former president sees it, historical experience suggests it will all work out in the end: “This is just the latest chapter in the oldest drama of human history, us vs. them. But sooner or later we mix and move on.” 

Writing from Northampton, England in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, British historian Paul Jackson reviews the successful history of the anti-fascist movements in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. In much the way we have just discussed, “anti-fascists,” as he defines them, “promote acceptance of a diverse, multicultural world, while right-wing extremists reject the diverse reality of modern life.” He goes on to advise that those in America seeking to confront right-wing extremists look at lessons learned from past movements when determining their course of action: “Rather than promoting violent confrontations, successful anti-fascist campaigns often play on the idea of ridiculing such intolerant groups. This is important as many extreme right activists crave violent confrontation with anti-fascists, even if they deny this publicly. Conflict with anti-fascists also allows extremists to play the role of the victim being silenced, and can to lead to more sympathetic media coverage.” Jackson ends with a warning to activists: “Do not simply romanticize all anti-fascist campaigns of the past. Embrace the promotion of reason over myth, and embrace democracy over extremism.”

Sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss argues that bans on hate speech and hate groups, as practiced, for example, in Germany, are “a way of asserting moral leadership and clarifying institutional values.” Yet “what bans,” she goes on to explain, “do not do is combat right-wing extremism itself.” According to Miller-Idriss, bans “are not an effective strategy to counter extremist ideologies” in part because they “often backfire, further fueling youth engagement in extremism by driving it underground and adding to disaffected youths’ sense of unfairness or injustice.”

Writing from Berlin, Fabian Wichmann, a researcher for the German organization EXIT Germany, argues that alternative, creative subversion methods of humor and irony can be more powerful in deflating neo-Nazi movements than physically cracking down. He describes how his organization, whose programs help those in right-wing extremist environments wishing to escape begin a new life, “pranked neo-Nazis by turning their own march [in the town of Wunsiedel] into a charity walkathon.” People on the street, Wichmann says, “cheered the neo-Nazis on as they walked, knowing that each step meant more money donated to an organization that opposed the very agenda they were there marching for.” German initiatives such as this one, he continues, could be emulated by Americans post-Charlottesville. Wichmann breaks down four ways activists in the United States can turn right-wing extremist agendas on their head. American organizations already seem to be inspired.

The white supremacy eruption in the U.S. has shaded over into a longer, ongoing debate about the fate of American monuments linked to the pro-slavery Confederacy. To put that in a global perspective, Nick Robins-Early looks at how other countries have dealt with monuments from a now divisive past. In the case of European post-Soviet states, he writes, some have removed statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin altogether; others have moved them into parks as a kind of museum. In one creative case, he reports, “a young Czech artist in Prague painted a Soviet World War II-era tank monument entirely pink.”

Writing from Durban, South Africa, Sabine Marschall discusses how that country has dealt with the issue of monuments to white minority leaders. In some cases, she notes, the government has “re-contextualiz[ed] contested history” by positioning new statues, such as that of a Zulu king, next to “white monuments” from the apartheid era. “It is important to remember,” Marschall says, “that the post-apartheid order did not emerge from revolution or military victory — it was a negotiated transition of power. Leaving statues, monuments and other identity symbols of the white minority largely untouched was one of the many compromises struck during the Nelson Mandela era, ostensibly in the name of reconciliation and nation-building.” Even so, she reports that students at the University of Cape Town have become more energized about social justice issues since 2015, after they successfully demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a white colonial governor in the late 19th century, and called for “decolonization of the curriculum.” As on U.S. campuses, their protest spread to other schools in South Africa through social media.

Other highlights in The WorldPost this week include:

Nathan Gardels, Editor-in-Chief
Kathleen Miles, Executive Editor
Dawn Nakagawa, Vice President of Operations
Farah Mohamed, Managing Editor
Peter Mellgard, Features Editor
Alex Gardels, Video Editor
Clarissa Pharr, Associate Editor
Rosa O’Hara, Social Editor
Suzanne Gaber, Editorial Assistant

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