Friday, September 18, 2009

Obama, Du Bois and Hitler: "Qui tacet consentire videtur" ("Silence gives consent")

This post is by Dr. Amy Bass, associate professor of history at The College of New Rochelle and author of Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois and Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.

History is never about the past. It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. In the midst of a lot of people who don’t seem to understand this, Barney Frank does. His confrontation in August with Rachel Brown of the La Rouche Youth Movement demonstrated how the national debate on health care reform, which was increasingly getting crushed by Sarah Palin’s spurious claims of “death panels,” would take the high road. Comparing Obama’s stance on Medicare expenditures to Hitler’s Aktion T4 strategy in 1939, Brown asked Frank how he could “continue to support a Nazi policy.” Frank’s reply to her question – “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” – drew laughter. But it was his continued response that gave me hope for a brief and shining moment that sanity was going to prevail:
Yes, you stand there with a picture of the President defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis. My answer to you is, as I said before: It is a tribute to the first amendment, that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have a conversation with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

If only it had ended there. But clearly it didn’t. In subsequent weeks, the Nazi analogies continued, the images of Obama as Hitler proliferated, new images of Obama as the Joker — meaning Obama in black (white) face – surfaced anonymously and then quickly became its own T-shirt industry, bumper stickers emerged with the sarcastic “Obama Makes Marxism Cool Again,” a little speech urging kids to stay in school got labeled indoctrination, and "socialism" became a dirty, dirty, dirty word.

I have watched this unfold with shock and awe, looking at the pages of my upcoming book, Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois, and wondering how this could still be happening. The book began as a small project – an article, I thought, an easy follow-up to my first book. A look at why Du Bois wasn’t more famous in the place where both he, in the late 19th century, and myself, in the late 20th century, had grown up. It was a project that would give me a chance to do some work while visiting my parents in the beautiful Berkshire Hills in western Massachusetts. It would be a chance to have some fun with history. Let’s find Du Bois in his hometown of Great Barrington. Let’s give him his due in this lovely place.

And then I came across what I now still think of as The Quote: “It's like building a statue of Adolf Hitler. The man was a Marxist as far back as 1922 and we oppose a monument to a Communist any place in the United States.” The speaker was Harold J. Beckwith, a past commander of the James A. Modolo Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Great Barrington. It was not surprising to see a VFW member opposed to a memorial recognizing Great Barrington as the birthplace and childhood home of Du Bois. Many such folks had come forward to argue against the proposal made in the late 1960s by a small group of summer residents and locals. Was he really a local figure?, some argued. He deserted the U.S. for Ghana, others pointed out. He was a Communist, most agreed.

But Hitler? Really?

The comparison of Du Bois – one of the world’s greatest thinkers on issues of race and equality and human rights and a founder of the NAACP – to Hitler is, I think, what turned this project of mine into a book about the racial venom of the Cold War in a small New England community. The comparison of Obama to Hitler in the current health care debates is what has made this project for me, on the eve of its publication, so critically important.

The song has remained the same. It isn’t about race, these tea-party attending people claim. They say they would disagree with Obama even if he was white. But the point is how they are choosing to disagree. It took Maureen Dowd to bravely step forward on a national platform and translate Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” into its proper South Carolinian context: “You lie, boy.”

Yes, folks: anti-health care rallies and these so-called tea parties aren’t about patriotism. They are about racism. And not easy racism, either, not Jim Crow “white here, colored there” racism, but a more codified and dangerous sort: the sort of racist rage that wraps itself in an American flag and asks the President of the United States for his birth certificate while deciding he is an “Indonesian Muslim” and “welfare thug” and brandishes signs telling him to “Go Back to Kenya” next to images of him dressed as a witch doctor – ones that so closely resemble those of the 19th century minstrel stage one might truly wonder when these rallies are taking place, rather than where.

These attacks are not on the administration’s policies, they are on the man, a classic example of historical displacement that echoes the American indictment of the Japanese during World War II, while attention focused specifically on Hitler and the Nazis in Europe. It cannot be stated more succinctly than the way Dowd has written it: “Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

That this is unfolding in a way so similar to the way Great Barrington tried to rationalize its disowning of Du Bois because of his late-in-life joining of the Communist Party makes my jaw drop. Barney Frank has the right idea: fight back. Fight. Back. Because a lunatic fringe, as Great Barrington never quite learned, can define an era just as well – if not better – than anyone. And like Du Bois, Obama seems to have the right kind of enemies, enemies that no one with a progressive worldview would ever want as friends. Obama, according to these people, is an outsider in the constant American Cold War reiteration of “us versus them.” Yet again, the U.S. has a “them” – or, more precisely, a “him” – that is part of an imaginary state of emergency, explaining why critiques of domestic policies on health care have quickly descended into familiar red-baiting debates using language designed to thinly veil the power of racial enmity.

Only this time, it’s the president.

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Amy Bass is associate professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois (Minnesota, 2009) and Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (Minnesota, 2002).

"Amy Bass’s excellent history of ‘un-American activities’ in a pleasant New England town is another cautionary illustration of the banality of evil: in this case, the long, willful distortion of the progressive legacy of their greatest native son, W. E. B. Du Bois, by the people of Great Barrington in the service of a perverted patriotism."
—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963

2 comments:

  1. "Sometimes I think there are no words but these to tell what's true."

    It risks caricature for an English professor to cite Yeats here but it has really felt like "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity."

    Amy Bass helps me understand why. The behavior she describes has been shocking and awful. Good manners almost seemed to require looking the other way, but obviously we have reached a new horizon.

    I think it takes courage to state what is so palpably present; racism harnessed, stoked, aimed, and fired at the President.

    Our better angels are telling us now to start singing. So, let us make a joyful noise but call it as we see it...

    Bravo.

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  2. Great post, Amy. Kudos for speaking up and speaking out. I second Nick Smart's "bravo." Can’t wait to read your book.

    I've recently been reading tons of Du Bois's writings and speeches during the Cold War period and found much of his critique of capitalist excesses and his support of socialism quite relevant for today. As you correctly observe, the vitriol with which Du Bois was met in the 1940s and 1950s (and the spirit behind it) is certainly still around today.

    After President Obama’s election, some anti-Obama folks in Houston put up a display that placed the president in a long line of socialists. Here’s a link to a colleague’s blog, complete with pictures.

    http://ecarson.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/communist-obama-display/

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