Don’t be shocked or surprised…
When vocal, strident antivaxxers die of Covid-19 it often happens that their family immediately deletes their long history of anti-mask, anti-mandate, anti-science memes on Facebook. Sometimes they delete the entire account. People don’t like to remember moments when we or our kin were squarely on the wrong side of history; we tend to downplay and erase the bits that look embarrassing in hindsight. Same goes for countries.
So most Americans don’t remember Madison Square Gardens in February of 1939. But they should. We all should. That was the year when a “pro-American rally” honoured George Washington’s birthday by celebrating Hitler and Nazism. It drew a crowd of 20,000, most of whom were already committed members of the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi social/political organisation.
A huge banner featuring an idealised George Washington was the backdrop for a mass Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a series of speeches condemning the “Jewish domination of Christian America.” The Stars-n-Stripes waved proudly next to Nazi flags. (Check out A Night at the Garden, a short documentary film about this event.)
This moment in 1939 should not be forgotten because it makes sense of Ottawa in 2022, where a well-organised mob of “truckers” waved Nazi flags next to Canadian flags. They occupied the downtown area for three weeks; they honked horns non-stop to prevent locals from sleeping, and harassed pedestrians wearing masks; and at one point they demanded not only the repeal of all Covid-19 public health mandates, but the resignation of an elected Prime Minister and the formation of a new government … chosen by them.
This moment in 1939 also makes sense of Washington DC in 2021, when a semi-organised mob stormed and vandalised the US Capitol building on the 6th of January — all the while waving US flags and wearing red, white, and blue — in an attempt to overturn a legitimate Presidential election.
For many ordinary Americans or Canadians, these were moments of profound cognitive dissonance and disbelief. Seeing their national flags flying next to (or crudely spraypainted with) swastikas was bewildering. Seeing “patriots” and “freedom-lovers” assaulting the democratic process itself was bewildering. But if we had properly remembered Madison Square Gardens in 1939, it wouldn’t have been so bewildering.
If we had properly remembered Madison Square Gardens in 1939, we would have remembered that fellow-citizens of one country can mean vastly different things by my country — can disagree fundamentally on what it means to be “American,” “English,” “German,” or “Canadian.” We would have remembered that citizenship is not the same thing as consensus; that what we think Canada “stands for” may be the diametric opposite of what another Canadian thinks. We would have remembered that politics is not always about civil (and often tedious) policy debates within a stable general consensus. At its core, politics is a struggle over the bedrock of principles, ethics, and the very nature of governance. A struggle far more dramatic and exciting… and far more dangerous.
What we should all remember, though it’s certainly more comforting to forget, is that Fascism, Nazism, White Supremacism, Nationalist Populism, Nativism, Dominionism— whatever you want to call it — is like a latent virus in human societies. It’s always present. It never goes away. History does not “move on” and make it obsolete. Sometimes it wakes up, and there’s an outbreak. Then we can only struggle against it and hope the infection is containable, that it doesn’t replicate to the point where the whole organism is overwhelmed.
Every society — including stable, liberal democracies — contains people who are predisposed to hate and distrust, who hunger for a hated Other in order to bolster their ego or identity. Every society contains people who are more vindictive than merciful, who admire bullies more than peacemakers. Every society contains men with dangerously high testosterone levels and chips on their shoulders— and women who idolise such men. Every society contains people with unacknowledged/unresolved mental health issues, PTSD, brain dysfunction, simmering generalised anger/panic, self-pity, unfulfilled revenge fantasies, grudges against the world. Every society contains people whose cognitive vulnerabilties make them gullible, easily attracted to and convinced by fantastical narratives, easily manipulated.
The ignorant, the resentful, the broken, the greedy, the vindictive, the malicious, the sociopath, the narcissist, the fabulist, the psychopath… we have always with us. Even the most benign of social orders cannot magically “cure” or tame all these people.
And somewhere deep in our human psyche there’s still a gravitational force, a nostalgic pull towards the simple social order of the gorilla or baboon troop, the rule of violent alpha males by force majeure. The nostalgia for kings and a feudalistic pecking order.
Deep in our human psyche, of course, there’s also a strong pull towards tending, befriending, fairness, negotiation, democracy, altruism etc. How else would we have survived, as social animals? A society of sociopaths would quickly and brutally fail. How else could we ever have invented religions that preach kindness, or democracy, or the idea of human rights, or the SPCA? But in each individual human being that tug-o’-war seems to resolve more in one direction than the other.
Bottom line: when a hundred random people witness an act of bullying, some subset of that hundred (25? 15? 30? 10?) will be cheering for the bully, admiring the bully, ready to sign up and join the bully’s team. Meanwhile another however-many percent will be cheering for the underdog — and an impassioned minority will be rolling up their sleeves to wade in on the underdog’s side. Any time, any place, any group of humans. And there will usually be a mushy middle, waiting to see which way the consensus goes before taking a side.
Nazis were uniquely German, but the heart and soul of Nazism has no specific language or culture or uniform. Nazis were “rightists” and Stalinists were “leftists” — allegedly political opposites — but in an increasingly distant rear view, they look far more similar than different. The soul of Nazism is brute primate ranking behaviour, the iron fist, the might of kings, the rule of the Uebermensch: the driving force of empire and conquest, the essence of pogrom and slavery, rape and torture. It’s that unslakable thirst for power over other people, and the hunger to hurt them to reinforce and flaunt that power. It’s the ethos of the Stalin era. It’s the ethos of every great Imperial power since humans invented Empire. It’s the ethos of the drug cartel, the Mafia, the gang, the gang rape.
Much as we might like to disown it, that appetite is human — we may loathe and fear it, but it’s somewhere in every group of people. I would go so far as to say that it’s the only substantive political/ideological struggle in our long tear-stained history: a neverending tussle between those who are repelled by bullying and cruelty, who want a world based on some kind of fairness, equity, and tolerance/kindness to each other… and those who admire bullying and cruelty, who want a world where a ruling class exercises special privileges, and a precarious underclass is bullied by that ruling class.
Forget, for the moment, all the hifalutin ideological window dressing; the Devil can always quote Scripture for his own purposes. In the end it all comes down to bullying, and how we feel about bullies.
Whether they’re oligarchs (bullies whose power is vested in concentrated wealth) … or racial supremacists (bullies whose power is vested in a caste system of “races”) … or language/nation/nativist supremacists (bullies whose power is vested in a spoken language or an ethnic/cultural identity or legal citizenship papers) … or theocrats (bullies whose power is vested in their alleged personal relationship with the Almighty)… or male supremacists (bullies whose power is vested in absolute gender dichotomy and probative masculinity) … or warlords (bullies whose power is vested in muscle and guns)… they’re still just bullies. (Note that a lot of those Venn circles overlap!)
At the end of the day, human politics comes down to the schoolyard and the macacque troop. Whose side are we on, and are there enough of us willing to protect the underdog and stand up to bullying?
If you enjoyed this essay, you might like to read Part 2…
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