Thursday, July 07, 2005

Death on the Fourth of July

I'm in a bit of a mopey mood at the moment, and I think a large part of it has to do with reading David Neiwert's Death on the Fourth of July, immediately followed by the first half of Soldiers of God: White Supremacists and Their Holy War for America, supplemented by Wiki-ing all the hate crime groups and terms I didn't already know, and the fact that my sister still hasn't called from London. On top of that, I bothered to tune into KQRS this morning (I simply cannot bring myself to read anything on Powerline, so I go for a pulse of Minnesota conservatism with which I can deal) and got to listen to an exchange that sounded just like something out of Strawberry Days (speaking of which - BoingBoing has a good post linking to WWII anti-Japanese posters). A listener noted that part of the problem with trying to catch terrorists like those in London was there were "generations" of "infiltrators" - an absolute rehash of the old "they're not assimilable" argument used against the Japanese and Chinese in the U.S., even those who were third generation citizens, in part to justify internment camps. I'd worry that history repeats itself, but I don't think the attitudes ever changed or went away, they just keep finding a new focus.

As for a review of Death on the Fourth of July - everything that worked fairly well for Strawberry Days worked exceptionally well in this instance. Neiwert does an exceptional job of contrasting a single, modern incident with a legacy of bias crime and the lack of anti-bias crime legislation both historically and presently. His chapter on the Mythology of Hate is one of the most reasoned explanations of the myths surrounding bias crime legislation, from both sides, that I've ever read. And any problems I may have had with not going deep enough into historical legislation in Strawberry Days are not a problem here.

I think the most artful work Neiwert does in Death on the Fourth, however, is that he sets you up with something you might think is amusing or ridiculous, racists yelling "Kung Fu...we want to fight you" and "ching chong" and getting so worked up they can only flex their muscles and roar with rage, and then he dumps you into lynching and bias-crime scenes so horrifying they give you nightmares. And he does a superb job of tying those extremes together to make you understand that it is just writing this behavior off as idiotic or not worth noticing that engenders a culture that doesn't address these issues until they are no longer only words and threats, but violence and the intimidation of entire segments of society. While Neiwert doesn't use the word, it is terrorism plain and simple - the application of violence to control or coerce the behavior of another group.

Neiwert's chapters on lynching (that's the Wiki for lynching in the United States - warning, it's incredibly graphic) and anti-lynching laws are wrenching, and appropriately juxtapositioned to highlight how not passing anti-lynching laws has strong parallels to not passing anti-bias laws. The point, Neiwert makes clear, is that the laws, regardless of whether they work or are prosecuted, let individuals know that the behavior and the attitude are unacceptable, and in doing so, changes the root social attitude. And lest anyone believe that this was a southern issue instead of a national issue (and draw a similar conclusion that gay-bashing is a red state prerogative), they only have to look at our very own Duluth (link to MNHS photo of the lynching):

"Not all racially motivated lynchings in the United States took place in the South. One such incident occurred in Duluth, Minnesota on June 15, 1920, when three young African-American travelers were dragged from their jail cells (where they were confined after being accused of raping a white woman) and lynched by a mob believed to number more than one thousand. The event became the subject of a non-fiction book, The Lynchings in Duluth, published in 2000, by Michael Fedo."

All of that said, I'd like to point out a contemporaneous example that shows how this culture of hatred doesn't go away if it's not addressed, but just morphs into other forms. This is a description Neiwert provides of an "'Official Running Nigger Target,' it was labeled. It showed a cartoon silhouette of a black man with a large Afro and monstrous lips, sprinting, arms akimbo, in apparent full flight. Numbers designated different scores for different parts of the anatomy, with a relatively low score for a head shot, and the highest score for hitting his feet." (p. 81).

And then more recently on his site, we see this Liberal hunting permit:

And then Smartie at The Power Liberal points us at a few more. At first, it might seem stupid, to the point of being harmless, but it's about an attitude and the development of that attitude and the social sanctioning of hatred as an American value. While I'm sure I feel safer than a black man in the post-reconstruction South, the casual dismissal of this sort of thing encourages increasing levels of hate and violence. When it's sanctioned by Karl Rove and other administration employees and not countered by our President, a segment of society starts to believe this sort of behavior is acceptable and even encouraged. If I need to spell it out, yes, I'm stating that many individuals in the current administration are guilty of facilitating hate crimes. If the culture and attitude don't yet exist in our nation, they certainly do in the halls of the White House.

In Neiwert's book and take to heart his central tenet about anti-bias/hate crime laws, that, "Their purpose is less to protect any "groups" than to focus approbation on a recognizable social pathology in its expression as a crime." (126). Every bias crime makes America a smaller place for some group. Every bias crime chips away the freedom of some group. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who embrace that bias.


Smartie said...

"Robin at Powerliberal"?

Ouch. I have feelings too, you know. :)

Scooter said...

Doh, sorry about that Smartie. My aggregator has Power Liberal with an appended note "Robin, Drinking Liberally". My bad. I shall update toot sweet.