Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville On My Mind—Part 1

Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.


Note: Barrels of Ink and enough electrons to build an alternative universe have been spilled on the racist White Nationalist violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend.  And I have been chewing on it for days now.  .The first of at least two, maybe more
The vast cesspool that includes multitudinous Ku Klux Klan outfits, Neo-Confederates, White Nationalist, Neo-Nazis and outright Nazis, aging Skin Heads and Biker bullies, and I-wanna-be-Rambo Militia have been growing in numbers and ratcheting up the vileness and threats in their rhetoric for some time.  Check the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Group roll call for confirmation. 
But they have remained so splintered into relatively tiny groups divided by nuances of racist ideology, style and to what extent they want to disguise their intent, and—let’s face it—by fashion differences and life styles—that they have consistently failed to come together in movement that could be dangerous not just to individuals and communities but to the very fabric of civil and democratic society.  If you are a Nazi, everyone wants to be Fuhrer or Klansman everyone their own Klegal.  These visions of grandiosity means that new groups pop up instead of people joining a well-established national organization.
There have been numerous attempts to rally the so-called Alt-right in recent years and until now they have failed laughably.  Of hand I can think of three or four marches on/motorcycle rides to/rallies in Washington that were supposedly going to dwarf the mammoth crowds turned out in events like the Women’s March and couldn’t muster a bedraggled corporal’s guard on the National Mall.  Grand pan-Klan events in Southern cities drew dozens.  No one heeded the calls to reinforce the Minuteman with armed border vigilantes or come to the rescue of the Cowboy militia who daringly seized control of a bird sanctuary.  The West’s White Nationalists sputtered in their attempt to invade a small Montana town where local Jewish lady made Richard Spencer’s mom feel bad. 
But this time the whole squabbling mob successfully came together for the first time in the Unite the Right events in Charlottesville.  So what the hell happened?

Trump campaign rallies made it pretty clear to the Alt-Right where their potential constituency was.
First, last year during the Presidential campaign Donald Trump began getting the huge adoring crowds that any would-be Hitler would envy.  He hit all the key emotional appeals of the fascist right—anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, attacking and discrediting the press, attacks on an elite conspiracy that was reminiscent of smearing “cosmopolitans,” calls for law and order to crack down on dissent like Black Lives Matter, sympathy for the protectors of Southern Heritage and the Stars and Bars, a dash of homophobia, misogyny by example, and old fashion flag-waving jingoism.  At first Trump did it with a sly wink-and-a-nod but as the campaign wore on he discovered that the more red meat he threw, the larger and more devoted the crowds.  Un-able to stifle the siren call of adulation, he relentlessly stepped it up, day after day.
Early on Alt-Right mouthpiece Steve Bannon of Breitbart, a blousy, alcoholic who dreamed of “bringing the whole thing [American Democracy] come crashing down”, recognized it, gave Trump free run and encouragement on his web site and showering him with flattery. He soon found himself the top strategist of the campaign, the candidate’s closest advisor even pushing aside Trump’s children. 
When Trump won the White House, Bannon was installed on the Right Hand of the Golden Throne.  In the first weeks of the administration he was widely seen as the very ill concealed mastermind calling the shots.  He set a dizzying pace of policy announcements meaning to immediately dismantled every achievement of the Obama administration, helped recruit the most rabidly right persons for Cabinet and top administrative jobs, and pursued a saber rattling belligerent foreign policy that was contemptuous of long time allies. 

White Nationalist media guru Steve Bannon got a seat at the Table at the White House and kept it against odds.
It was only when he drew too much attention to himself, stirred too many pots, and began to rattle even Republican loyalists that Jared and Ivanka Kushner were able to stage a palace coup and depose the Grand Vizier.  But they never forced him completely out.  He kept his office and his title.  If his mastery of the administration was limited, he was content to lie low and bide his time.  And he had already salted administration with other Alt-Right and White Nationalist darlings—super hawk and Islamaphobe General John Kelly at Homeland Security to manage the Muslim Ban and immigration sweeps; Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller who despite being the decedent of immigrant Jews bears a frightening physical and ideological resemblance to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels; and deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka who has ties to the Hungarian Nazi collaborators Vit├ęzi Rend.  These three and lower level moles also pulled in their horns for a while.  But as if on auto pilot the Cheeto in Charge continued to promote their hobby horses in increasingly deranged daily Tweets.
In an astonishingly short period of time the Trump presidency seemed to go into a death spiral fuled by his Tweets on the toilet and bizarre public appearances and escalating incoherence.  But it was the steady and relentless unraveling of his personal and campaign relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia that kept creeping closer and closer to his inner circle, family, and himself that became terrifyingly perilous.  
The messy details of that third rate TV political thriller are too complex to go into here.   You know them unless you have been hiding under a rock or depending on Fox News and Breitbart for your information.  Suffice it to say that various expendables and fringe players were thrown to the wolves—and into the eager hands of Robert Mueller, the FBI chief  Trump dumped and became Special Counsel investigating the Russian shenanigans and related scams and corruption.
Unable to acknowledge that the pickle he found himself in was largely the product of his own impetuosity and pathological lying, Trump raged around the White House seeking to fix the blame.  He turned his malevolent glare of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a lap-dog loyal certified old time Southern bigot, who was his most effective cabinet member in dismantling the Obama legacy and attacking immigrants and voting rights.  Sessions should have been the apple of his master’s eye.  But Trump was enraged that he had been forced to recues himself from the Russia investigation and could not fire Mueller.  The President went on an extraordinary and relentless two week public rampage against Sessions who remained mostly discretely mum but refused to resign.  Sessions also had too much support from hard-line Congressional conservatives to be summarily fired.
Next in the President’s sights were the more vulnerable members of his own staff, a pack of squabbling back-stabbers who were leaking details of Oval Office chaos right and left.  The pathetic incompetent Press Secretary, who had already been benched, was an easy target.  Harder were the supposed Republican insiders adults in the room” like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus who Trump felt failed to protect him and were not aggressive enough.  They also tried, without success to “keep Trump from being Trump”—recklessly stupid and impetuous.  The president was sick of it and increasingly angry at Congressional Republicans who supported them for not advancing his Obama care repeal. 
That’s when he called in loose cannon, Anthony Scaramucci as his hatchet man.  The Mooch bragged about “firing the first guy I saw” to assert his new authority than turned his attention to Priebus who was gone within days replaced by General John Kelly lately of Homeland Security.  Other rats had their tails set on fire or jumped ship.  And the “moderating” voice of son-in-law Kushner, who had been accumulating portfolios that he was not remotely qualified to handle, was being isolated.  

White House hatchet man Anthony "The Mooch" Sacramucci may not have lasted long and may have had Steve "Self-Falacio" Bannon in his sights, but he cleared out Banner's biggest enemies before he got to him.
But the Mooch was even less disciplined than his boss and his swaggering bit him in the ass before it had a chance to properly warm his desk chair.  After a profanity laced interview in which he threatened to fire the entire White House staff if he could not identify a leaker and proclaimed that “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.”  Bannon might have been in his sights, but he never got a chance to pull the trigger.
The first thing that Kelly did as Chief of Staff was to fire Scaramucci after only six days on the job.  He also called Kushner and Ivanka to heel by requiring them to report to and through him instead of enjoying unlimited access to the Oval Office.  Kelly supposedly represented discipline in the White House, but he was also an ultra-rightist with more than passing fascist tendencies who quietly let Bannon and the other top Alt-right aids, back into the inner circle.
With the noose still tightening in the Russia investigation, which was spreading to his family’s finances and business dealing, Trump began to be convinced that the only chance for his personal and political survival lay in whipping up his old base and relying to the Alt-right as a possible source of armed intervention should his back get to the wall.

Stephen Miller was trotted out to outline a xenophobe's dream immigration proposal and in the process insulted Emma Lazarus.
As a signal, Trump trotted out both Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka to make important public policy statements for the administration.  Miller announced the administration’s new immigration plan, the RAISE Act which would sharply limit legal immigration and favor immigrants with high English proficiency and substantial assets, and virtually end family reunification immigration. Not only was this the perfect music for White nationalist and racist ears, but as an added bonus Miller insulted the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazerus’ poem and accused a reporter of being a “cosmopolitan”—the classic veiled slur for a Jew.  That the reporter in question was not a Jew and Miller actually was made no difference.  Every one noted with horror or appreciation that Miller looked and sounded like Joseph Goebbels.
All of this was publicly noted and appreciated across the Alt-right including appreciative remarks by the high profile figures former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke and media gadfly Richard Spencer, the two figures most often interviewed and quoted in the mainstream press, but he also got cheers from radio and sub-basic cable raver Alex Jones and The Daily Stormer, both red meat to the most rabid neo-Nazis, Klansmen, skin-head punks.
The entire Alt-right, along with the older Klan and Nazi movements, thrived under the beaming approval of Trump and the social permission he gave for overt racist statements and harassment.  All of these groups swelled with new recruits—and more were being founded almost daily.  But, as noted, all attempts at effective cooperation had failed.
Until, that is, the large crowds that responded across the South to taking down the Stars and Bars and attempts to remove Confederate monuments.  These “attacks on Southern Heritage” converted latent and marginal racists—and many Trump votersto angry activists in the streets. Not only did this issue have broad appeal across right wing movements and ideologies, it seemed the key to finally becoming a mass movement, not just a noisy fringe.

Alt-right media star Richard Spencer's May protest at the Charlottesville Lee statue set the stage for Unite the Right.
The far right began to home in on Charlottesville when the city announced plans to remove a heroic equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee and re-name the small park where it stood Emancipation Park.  Richard Spencer led a highly publicized Take Back Lee Park rally on May 13 where protestors surrounded the statue carrying torches.  Local religious and civil rights leaders mounted a peaceful counter vigil with more participants but Spencer felt he had won the night. 
Klan factions planned their own rally on July 8, but in a repeat of many other failures could only muster 50 participants who were dwarfed by over a thousand counter demonstrators.  That is when it became apparent that the small and splintered Klan and Nazi groups, with their inherit public relations problems would never be able to pull off a major event without the participation of the so-called Alt-right, less overt groups that tried to put a more favorable face on White Nationalism.
Jason Kessler of the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer was the principle organizer of the Unite the Right event.  Among the organizations that quickly signed on were the neo-Confederate League of the South, the pseudo think tank National Policy Institute, the openly Nazi National Socialist Movement, various KKK groups, the Oath Keepers and armed militia groups, new Proud Boy groups, Nazi-motorcycle clubs, and a dizzying array of tiny sects.  The call also drew people who simply proclaimed themselves Trump supports, and frat-boy College Republicans.
In the end, somewhere north of 1000 participants came to Charlottesville, hardly an overwhelming number, but the largest display of far right muscle in decades.  Officially the planned march and rally was to be peaceful.  But chatter on social media made clear that many came hoping that they had numbers enough to respond violently to “provocations.  Explicit threats were made against Jewish and Black city leaders, the large contingent of religious leaders mobilized interfaith group Congregate Charlottesville, Black Lives Matters, the media, anti-fascist groups, and, of course, Jews.
Charlottesville and Trump--what possible connection could there be?
After court battles over permits for Emancipation Park and as the ranks of both sides swelled, the city felt like a powder keg.  Violence was almost universally expected.  The White House refused to join city and state leaders in denouncing Unite the Right or making any appeals for peace.    The Right took it as “a wink is good as a nod.”
We will explore some of the details of what happened in the next essay. 
In the aftermath the relation between Trump and the so-called Alt-right finally became clear.  It took Trump until Sunday afternoon to make a public statement that referred to “violence on many sides” and steadfastly refused to denounce the neo-Nazis, Klan and Alt-right by name.
Duke, Spencer, and the Daily Stormer all registered approval of the statement.  That added to the firestorm of criticism over Trump’s tepid response, some of it coming Republicans terrified they were going to be permanently publicly branded as racists, Vice-President Mike Pence was forced finally to call them out by name.   That was not enough.
On Monday Trump “clarified” himself in carefully chosen words which finally did manage to say that racism and Nazis are very bad things.   That elicited undeserved praise from Republican,   incredulity by almost everyone else—just a day late and a dollar short.   But it was enough to irk both Spencer and Duke who hinted that their troops might not have his back if he betrayed them.
That was enough to terrify Trump and along with pique for not having been lauded in the press for his Sunday statement.  That was enough to walk back virtually everything he had said and hit Alt-right talking points in an angry, rambling confrontation with the media at Trump Tower in New York yesterday. 
At Trump Tower in New York Tuesday the Cheeto in Charge removed any doubt where he really stood.
The mask not only has been torn off, it has been torn up and can never be worn again. Trump is now beyond anyone’s doubt a racist and ally of racists.  He is shedding defenders faster than a mangy dog sheds fur.  He is more isolated than ever.  Which, of course, make him dangerous and unpredictable. 
Will he try to rally support by going to war with North Korea, Venezuela, or some other convenient target?   Will he try to dodge the Russian noose by finally firing Sessions and investigator Muller precipitating a possible Constitutional crisis?   Will he turn to his last allies and summon them to Washington in arms to protect him?  
We hold our breath                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Witness for Justice Out of Hundreds—A Vigil For Charlottesville in McHenry

Gathering at the Tree of Life UU Congregation.  Photo by Lori Palmer Kane.


Note:  In a whirlwind of emotions the past few days have flashed by as I stayed glued to news accounts and processed what happened in Charlottesville and to our nation. It was also taken up by leaping into action with the great folks from the Tree of Life UU Congregation Social Justice Team to pull together a rapid response vigil in McHenry last night.  This is a report on that action.  My deeper ruminations will be shared on posts over the next day or two.
I lost count as the gloaming settled in around the grounds of the Tree of Life Unitarian Church, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry on Monday night at just over 100 and more arrived later.  It was a lovely, warm, but mosquito infested evening that brought folks from the comforts of their homes from Wisconsin to the several points in the northern and western Chicago suburbs in addition to McHenry County.  About 80% were not members of the Congregation and most of them had never visited before.  They came in response the widening ripples of a stone thrown in the pond of social media—from posts shared by the McHenry County Progressives, Indivisible, church notifications, and individual to individual.
We were not alone.  In addition to A Vigil for Charlottesville—All Creeds, All Colors, All Caring sponsored by Tree of Life’s Social Justice Team—there were literally hundreds of vigils, marches, and rallies across the United States and around the world all standing up to White supremacy, bigotry, and the spreading threat of fascism.
Our flickering candles out shine their torches.  Our voices lifted in prayer and song drowns out their hate filled chants.  Our resistance and defiance stymies their strutting braggadocio.  Our uncowed defiance thwarts their school yard bullying.

TOL Social Justice Team Co-Chair Judy Stettner, center led the vigil.  My own lamentably blurry cell phone snap.
Judy Stettner, co-chair of the TOL Social Justice Team, presided as the circle on the lawn by the Church widened and grew.  After welcoming remarks, she shared the account of Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray who was in Charlottesville with a large contingent of faith leaders from many traditions to bear witness against hate and offer their bodies to block the Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, and armed Militia marchers.
Then it was this Old Man’s turn.  After remembering the blood sacrifice of 32 year old anti-fascist hero Heather Heyer and the needless deaths of Virginia State Police Lt. H. Jay Cullon and Trooper Pilot Berk M.M. Bates in a helicopter crash responding to the violent chaos unleashed by the organized forces of bigotry, I said that it fell to me to be the voice of anger and outrage.  I was not there to lead a chorus of Kumbaya.  I recalled that earlier in the day I had read remarks by Black scholar and activist Cornel West who was with the religious leaders on both Friday night when the marching Nazis threatened the church where they gathered and on Saturday when they placed themselves around the scheduled park rallying point to block access to the Unite the Right marchers.  The ministers were confronted and menaced with imminent attack unprotected by police who had withdrawn. "The antifascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that."  West said.  These are the same anti-fascists that the Cheeto-in-Charge and far too much of the media holds to be equally guilty for the violence.

The Old Man in the gloaming.  Photo by Gregory Shaver from the Northwest Herald.
On that note, I shared this new poem.

Munich and Charlottesville
August 13, 2017

So is this how it felt on the streets of Munich
            when the strutting Brown Shirts
            in their polished jackboots,
            Sam Browne, and scarlet arm bands
            faced the scruffy Commies
            in their cloth caps
            and shirtsleeves rolled up
            and battled in the beerhalls,
            parks and streets.

All of the good people, the nice people
            cowered behind closed doors
            and wished it would go away—
                        all of the liberals, the Catholics,
                        the new-bred pacifists of the Great War,
                        the professors and doctors,
                        editors and intellectuals,
                        the Social Democrats,
                        even—my God!—the Jews
                        who had not gone Red—
            a pox on both your houses they solemnly intoned.

Hey, buddy, in retrospect those damn Bolshies
            look pretty good,
            like heroes even.
           
Things look a little different in Charlottesville,
            in brilliant color not grainy black and white
            and the Fascists can’t agree on a
            Boy Scout uniform and array themselves
            golf shirts and khakis, rainbow Klan hoods,
            biker black and studs and strutting camo.

But the smell, you know, that stench,
            is just the same.

The question is—do you dare be a Red today
            or will you close your doors
            and go back to your game consoles
            and cat videos.

Which will it be, buddy?

—Patrick Murfin
I will expand upon this thought in an upcoming post.



Rev. Eric Fistler of the First Congregational Church in Crystal Lake. Photo by Gregory Shaver from the Northwest Herald
Next we heard from The Rev. Eric Fistler of the First Congregational Church in Crystal Lake who cleared his schedule on short note to join the vigil.  He offered moving and thought provoking testimony.
Led by some of the good, strong voices of the Tree of Life Choir scattered through the assemblage we all sang the hymn Love Will Guide Us.  The words seemed especially appropriate.
Love Will Guide Us
Love will guide us,
Peace has tried us,
Hope inside us will lead the way
On the road from greed to giving,
Love will guide us through the hard night.

If you cannot sing like angels,
If you cannot speak before thousands,
You can give from deep within you,
You can change the world with your love.

Love will guide us,
Peace has tried us,
Hope inside us will lead the way
On the road to greed to giving,
Love will guide us through the hard nights.

—Sally Rogers lyrics, Betty A. Wylder music    

By the roadside in candle lit silence.  Photo by Lori Palmer Kane
As other from the gathering offered their own prayers and thoughts, candles were passed out and lit hand to hand around the circle.  Darkness was descending as we progressed in silence down the curving driveway under the towering trees to the street.   We spread out along Bull Valley road with our candles and our signs.  Judy Stettner and I held Tree of Life’s new Standing on the Side of Love banner.  The electronic message board on our sign glowed with the announcement of the Vigil for Charlottesville.  There was a solemn, purposeful silence with a background song of crickets.  Cars moved passed, their headlights shining.  Many slowed down.  The passengers in one white SUV rolled down their windows to shout out a cheer for President Trump.  The thoughts and feelings of the others passing by were an enigma to us.    
We did not linger long along the road.  The growing darkness made it dangerous.  After several minutes Judy rang some chimes to announce the end of the vigil.   We walked back up the dire way with our candles still lit, feeling the reverence of the moment.    Then beside the parking lot we clustered and chatted excitedly. 
It had been a good evening we agreed.  A very good evening.