Friday, March 23, 2018

Denial and ignorance of history is worse than “forgetting” it

I was in a downtown Seattle 7-Eleven the other day, and while waiting in line I found myself being forced to listen to one of the clerks, a white male in a loud and self-important manner his interpretation of the recent Austin, Texas bombings. In a plainly self-congratulatory manner he told a second clerk, a black male, that it had been the bomber’s intention to “terrorize” and commit “genocide” against black people. I had the impression that his partner was less than impressed. Neither was I, although likely for a reason different than self-serving boastfulness. When I handed over the items I was purchasing I told the clerk  that blacks were not the only persons the bomber had been targeting; he ignored me and continued to rant self-righteously.

When the white clerk again made plain that he thought only blacks had been targeted by the bomber, I informed him that Hispanics had been targeted too, and a 75-year-old Hispanic woman had been seriously injured. Briefly acknowledging my “ethnic” presence, he retorted that the bomber had “made a mistake” and continued with the previous line. I wouldn’t be silenced; I told him, loudly, that the bomber had not made a “mistake”—and not only that, I told him “By the way, you only have to be racist against one group to be one” before leaving him to “explain” himself to himself. This is how it is, even in “liberal” Seattle; if it isn’t some guy like this trying to prove he is more “righteous” than others, then it is gender advocacy and the black and LGBT communities (or white vagrants looking for a handout) who are fashionable avenues to either subvert one’s guilt—or engage in their own “reverse” oppression, usually with the use of negative and inflammatory versions of reality.

The problem of course is that unlike gender, black and LGBT issues, there is no desire to face the reality of “rational discrimination” against Hispanics in this country, whether by the media or in history books. They are not "real" Americans, after all, but an "alien" presence and completely ignorable (other than as a "likely" criminal who has to be "watched") because they have nothing to "contribute." All parties—and I am including other immigrant groups—join together in scapegoating Hispanics for their “problems.” They “justify” their stereotypes and paranoia by focusing on the illegal immigration issue and the alleged “criminality” of the Hispanic immigrants that may be noted by “liberals” as being “exaggerated,” but never actually confronted as the race-bate for bigots and xenophobes that it is intended to be. But the reality is that Hispanics regardless of their legal status are wrapped-up in this bigotry. People need someone to hate, and since the media refuses to tackle the atmosphere that it has helped create—allowing anti-Hispanic fanatics like Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter a national platform with no real pushback—it denies Hispanics themselves the opportunity to respond to it.

This is the end result when deliberate ignorance of history and a dark place in the U.S. history prevails. It isn’t just that people don’t want to know why so many cities and towns in the Southwest and California have Spanish names, or that the oldest continuous non-Native American settlement in the U.S., St. Augustine in Florida, is of Spanish origination. It is that almost no one seems to be aware that Hispanics fought the same battles for civil rights and human dignity as blacks did, accept that they never received the same attention from the national press. Even Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame completely ignored Hispanic farm workers, even as the battles for farmworkers’ rights were being fought by Cesar Chavez in the fields of California. 

There was a time, during the 1950s, when television shows like The Cisco Kid, Zorro and I Love Lucy, and films like Man From Del Rio, Trial, Giant and 12 Angry Men provided some kind of acknowledgement of Hispanics as people like everyone else, and the prejudices against them, especially since a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision had found them a discriminated-against group. In Angry Men, Ed Begley Sr.’s racist rant against a Hispanic youth unjustly accused of murdering his father is still echoed in the rhetoric of Donald Trump, some of his closest advisors and many (if not most) of his most ardent supporters:

I don't understand you people. How can you believe this kid is innocent? Look, you know how those people lie. l don't have to tell you. They don't know what the truth is. And lemme tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone either. You know, they get drunk, and bang, someone's lying in the gutter. Nobody's blaming them. That's how they are. You know what I mean? Violent! Human life don't mean as much to them as it does to us. Hey, where are you going? Look, these people are drinking and fighting all the time, and if somebody gets killed, so somebody gets killed. They don't care. Oh, sure, there are some good things about them, too. Look, I'm the first to say that. I've known a few who were pretty decent, but that's the exception. Most of them; it's like they have no feelings. They can do anything. What's going on here? 1'm speaking my piece, and you listen to me! They're no good. There's not a one of em who's any good. We better watch out. Take it from me.

But back then television was just trying to find an audience for the new medium and willing to try anything, and filmmakers felt free to examine social issues (particularly concerning race in America) for the first time. But times have “changed,” at least for Hispanics. There is almost nothing on television or in film today that examines the reality that Hispanics face in this society. I don’t recall ever reading in my high school history books anything about the Hispanic presence in the U.S. or their struggles for civil rights. Instead, I have to find myself “bemused” by the way some blacks who apparently find Hispanics an unwanted “competitor” make demeaning “get a job” type comments to me—“bemused” because they have the nerve to judge me when their “house” is somewhat “dirtier” than mine.

There have been a few efforts to fill in these huge gaps in the American historical consciousness. Testimonio: A Documentary History of the Mexican-American Struggle for Civil Rights edited by Francisco Rosales, compiles various summaries of instances of prejudice, discrimination and violence against Hispanics in the U.S. and the efforts to combat them. Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 by William Carrigan and Clive Webb summarizes the history of lynching and other avenues of violence against Hispanics that at least “rival” in numbers with that perpetrated on blacks in the South. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez details a crime in many ways worse than that perpetrated on the Japanese residing in this country during World War II: the forced “repatriation” of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens during the Great Depression who had the misfortune of having Spanish names into Mexico, simply rounded-up like cattle with little more than what they could carry. The “justification” for this was that these “Mexicans” were “stealing” jobs from “real Americans,”—the irony of which is that Hispanics in general (due to what degree of indigenous heritage) were more “American” than they were.

What happens when a country is purposely ignorant of history? They vote into office xenophobes and nativists and every other stripe of bigot. We already know what is happening in this country, but it could be worse, maybe even a lot worse. Take for example what is going on in Austria today. Back in 2009, The Daily Mail reported on what was happening “behind the scenes”:

This is a neo-Nazi gathering and in the crowd are some of Austria’s most hard-faced fascists. Among them is Gottfried Kussel, a notorious thug who was the showman of Austria’s far-right movement in the Eighties and Nineties until he was imprisoned for eight years for promoting Nazi ideology.  Today he cuts a Don Corleone figure as he stands defiantly at the graveside. His neo-Nazi acolytes make sure no one comes near him and our photographer is unceremoniously barged out of his way.  

Ominous-looking men with scars across their faces whisper to each other and shake hands. These are members of Austria’s Burschenschaften, an arcane, secretive organisation best known for its fascination with fencing, an initiation ceremony that includes a duel in which the opponents cut each other’s faces, and for its strong links to the far right. Incredibly, standing shoulder to shoulder with these hard-line Nazi sympathisers are well known Austrian politicians. At the graveside, a speech is made by Lutz Weinzinger, a leading member of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), who pays tribute to the fallen.

This is a gathering in memory of an Austrian-born Nazi fighter pilot, who during WWII shot down 258 planes, 255 of them Russian. Such was Major Walter Nowotny’s standing at the time of his death in 1944 that the Nazi Party awarded him a grave of honour in Vienna’s largest cemetery, close to the musical legends Mozart, Brahms and Strauss. But in 2005 that honour was revoked and his body moved to lie in an area of public graves. The decision infuriated the far right and made their annual pilgrimage an even greater event. Today, the anniversary of Nowotny’s death, also coincides with Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’ in 1938 when 92 people were murdered and thousands attacked across Germany as stormtroopers set upon Jews in an outpouring of Nazi violence. 

But the country that bestowed upon the world Adolf Hitler himself was allowed in the post-war world to define itself as a “victim” of Nazi Germany, rather than its outright ally that produced many prominent figures in the perpetration of Nazi crimes. Based almost solely on a nativist, racist platform, the fascist Freedom Party—led by a former SS officer shortly after the war—won 26 percent of the parliamentary vote this past October, which is typical of the victimizer recasting themselves as the “victim.” This past December, The New York Times reported that

Austria’s new chancellor has given an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by ex-Nazis key posts in his coalition government, an alarming move that may help define a new normal in Europe. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz dashed hopes that he and his conservative People’s Party would reject an alliance with the extremist Freedom Party. Instead, Mr. Kurz cut the Freedom Party a generous political bargain. The pro-European Mr. Kurz handed this party with roots in Austria’s Nazi past the defense portfolio and the powerful posts for the interior and foreign ministries, in exchange for its dropping demands for a referendum on European Union membership. Austria’s migration policy will now include seizing migrants’ cellphones on entry, stripping migrants of their cash and depriving them of medical confidentiality.

Other countries, like Poland and Hungary, have also elected neo-fascist regimes whose power rests solely on their ability to arouse fanatical hatred without self-examination. Ironically, Germany has for now successfully proven itself a vanguard against the far-right, in large part due to the fact that self-examination of the past is part of the social fabric, and that it continues to be an economic bulwark while other countries that have embraced fascism (Italy may now be repeating its own dark past) have experienced economic difficulties, and hence the need for scapegoats. 

Can self-examination  be said to be occurring in the U.S.? Is this country under the “leadership” of Trump repeating a past that accepted racism and prejudice as "normal"? Or in the case of Hispanics, is this a country merely acting out prejudices it has never acknowledged as a society in the first place?

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