Resist Tactics to Turn Us Against Each Other

“Identity politics” are now being misused by the alt-right.

Let’s begin with a somewhat controversial statement: identity politics are not the problem here. Several terms have been taken by alt-right internet trolls and used to attack the very people they were invented to serve. See: ‘triggered’ and ‘safe-space’.

In fascism, individual identities and wishes are absorbed into the wishes of the whole. Allegiance and obedience to the state overrule any other desires. Societal problems, such as economic issues, are blamed on specific groups who do not fit into their idea of ‘proper citizens’. These people then become ‘un-pure’ and will corrupt the rest of society. The most obvious example of this was how the Nazis blamed the status of Germany (a struggling economy, lack of military) after the First World War on Jewish corruption. They then used this made-up narrative as an excuse to systematically murder six million Jewish people. Another example of antisemitism in European fascist states (not that there aren’t multiple books worth of examples) is anti-Jewish laws in fascist Italy. These laws were either supported or ignored by the larger population because Jewish people already were labouring under being viewed as inherently unable (read: unwilling) to conform. When identity becomes a detriment to loyalty to the state, identities that are already viewed as the ‘Other’ in society have been painted as inherently disloyal and open to being targeted.

Some people that would be also targeted for bigotry have tried to distance themselves from more marginalized groups. They may think that they can avoid oppression by allying themselves with the alt-right early. This is absolutely wrong. The alt-right, primarily online, have been trying to invoke this deliberately. Specific arguments are used as an attempt to divide up people who would otherwise be allied. One of the more widespread tactics is used specifically against Muslim people, something that Jasib Puar described as ‘homonationalism’ in the essay Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Neo-nazis with ulterior motives now are using homophobia in what they classify as ‘Muslim countries’ as an excuse to feel morally superior and in turn deny rights to Muslim people. Personally, this was used in full force at a rally I protested this summer. The rally was ostensibly against unfettered immigration but was full of Islamophobic slogans and speeches. In some of these speeches, men would talk about how Muslim people were homophobic and women-hating, complaining about the hypocrisy of the Canadian government for welcoming in refugees yet claiming to be for gay and women’s rights. Many, many more examples of neo-nazis suddenly finding a deep passion for queer liberation when the plight of the LGBTQ+ population in Saudi Arabia is discussed can be found online.

This strategy isn’t anything new. And unlike some voices, this is not at all a call to ignore intersectional analysis in activism. Quite the opposite: listening and elevating other experiences is crucial to presenting a united front in any sort of anti-fascist resistance. Authoritarianism often works by manipulating already-existing social prejudices as a strategy for gaining power. Struggling against each other to be accepted as an ‘in-group’ with the people in power hurts all of us in the long run. Despite the ability of some to find a place in the group oppression of others, this should not be seen as an actual option by any. Unlike in other historical contexts, supporters of fascism and white supremacy are still outnumbered. Letting them divide activists and set us against each other can happen when larger movements ignore the specific needs and realities of more marginalized members.

Identity politics is a dismissive term for acknowledging the specific experiences of different people and working to guarantee a decent life for all of them. Don’t let them turn us against each other: criticisms need to be there, but we need to keep in mind what can happen if we ignore the real danger. If we let them hurt one group of people because they aren’t us we open the door for whatever oppression they see fit to be turned on us.

America Reborn

We all know the slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. But where’s the appeal? Why the slogan hits home with so many people is the call to a ‘greater’ past. It’s the idea that America was once perfect but it was lost over time.

Anyone with a smartphone can Google ‘American history’ and find out that this past isn’t golden. But Trump’s call to a greater past implies that America lost something it used to have. “Looking back” is a strategy used in all kinds of places. Most notably in politics, but even subtly in places like malls and TV. It’s a trend that’s been used globally for centuries as a way to appeal to individuals on large scales.

In a way, Trump’s signature slogan is a call for an American renaissance. Renaissance is French for ‘rebirth’. It’s been mainly used to describe the years during the 14th-16th centuries when Europe saw a great burst of cultural, economical, and scientific change. This rebirth was sparked by the same nostalgia that Trump appeals to. Europe looked back at ancient Greece and Rome as their ‘great past’. The Europeans wanted to “MAKE EUROPE GREAT AGAIN”.

But Trump never labels a specific era that was the American great, and he doesn’t need to. When Trump tells people to “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”, he’s not addressing American history. He’s appealing to each person with a past that they miss. Many people want to think that they would never be swayed by such vague promises. But it happens everyday, whether we know it or not.

Older generations are nostalgic for their youth. Many think that our current generation has ‘lost’ something that is making us act unruly. Author Svetlana Boym says in her book The Future of Nostalgia that “nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.”

Boym also states “the fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future.” Pride for the past is a powerful emotion, and people will filter out the bad parts in favour of the good. Maybe a person hates ripped jeans. In their mind, making America great again would be to ban them. Trump doesn’t need to give specific examples. We fill in the rest ourselves.

Trump is first and foremost a businessman. His gut tells him that the past sells. If you’ve watched the Netflix show Stranger Things or been to Urban Outfitters then you’ve been attacked by nostalgic propaganda. Steve Olenski, a writer for Forbes magazine, explains in his article Nostalgia Sells that we live in a fast-paced world and “many people have looked back to simpler times and been attracted to products from that past that remind them of when life wasn’t so complicated.” In other words, the past is safe and predictable. Trump promises a future that is exactly that. He uses nostalgia to sell himself and his promises to his customers, who in this case are the American people.

Where Trump falls short is his lack of connection to the much younger generation. If we guess that America’s ‘downfall’ began on 9/11 then we need to account for everyone born after that. The “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT” business falls flat with his audience who can’t remember 9/11 because they were too young and weren’t around to know a better America. This smaller generation is mostly filled with people who can’t vote yet, including the children who were born into the Trump presidency. We can’t deny that how these kids are raised will have an effect on their opinions of him. Trump, however, will need to begin changing his selling tactics if he wants this generation on his side. It will be nearly impossible to demand people remember a past that wasn’t theirs.

Trump’s American renaissance is already going down in history but it’s too early to tell what the long-term effects will be. Since these next few years will one day be our past, it raises the question of exactly how many of us will be nostalgic for it in the future.

 

Equal rights mean equal responsibilities

With recent revelations about BBC gender pay disparities making headlines, and a magazine like Maclean’s going so far as to ask men to pay more for their issue about the pay gap, it’s fair to say that gender equality, or a lack thereof is on people’s minds.

Over the past century women’s rights have made great leaps and bounds, particularly in the West. Women have earned the right to vote, we are able to participate in the military, in political life, and we can hold any job that a man can.

Unfortunately, with power comes responsibility. When looking at women’s actions, past and present, we need to remember that we are just as capable of making bad decisions as men. Even though the idea of women’s historical agency and participation is fairly progressive, that doesn’t mean that all women are progressive.

According to exit polls, in the 2016 presidential election, more than half of white female voters cast their vote for Donald Trump. While the overwhelming majority of women voted for Clinton, this subset exists and it exists for a reason. When given the opportunity, women are just as capable as men of picking the wrong side. While this sort of misguided political support has always been more systematically available to men, it is not unique to them.

Another, more recent example of this misguided support is the support of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Despite allegations that Moore pursued sexual relationships with teenagers, white women rallied around him. According to CNN one woman, Jane Porter, went as far as saying, “Because it’s not about facts. It’s not about trust. It’s not about women. It’s about the assassination of an honourable man who is running for Senate.” Saying that allegations of sexual misconduct with female teenagers isn’t about women is ridiculous. Or is it?

Both Trump’s election and female support of Roy Moore show that white women are more interested in supporting men who share their ideologies than they are in supporting other women. And supporting your ideologies is fine, it isn’t inherently wrong, men do it all the time. However, it starts to be wrong when these ideologies are problematic. When they become racist, sexist, xenophobic, classist, or otherwise oppressive, that’s when we have a problem. And unfortunately, white women have a habit of showing their support most strongly when one of those factors is at play.

White women are drawn towards extreme beliefs when it benefits them in some way, real or perceived. In her book, Hitler’s Furies, Wendy Lower uncovers and explores this idea. German women flocked towards the Nazi regime not just because of its ideology, but also because of its practicality. It allowed young German women freedom unlike any they had ever experienced. Supporting the Nazi party was beneficial because it allowed them the freedom to leave the home, serve the military in some capacity, and have “adventures” that would have been otherwise unavailable. Many German women may have genuinely believed in the Nazi ideology, but for others supporting the party was simply a gateway into a new, more interesting life.

The Ku Klux Klan is an even more recent example of white women supporting an ideology that left them feeling empowered. They may not have been superior to white men, but at least they could feel superior to everyone else. For women who are used to submission and subservience to men, the opportunity to dominate other people, to get to be better than them, could have been incredibly appealing.

Gender equality means giving women a deeper, more nuanced identity. This depth and nuance can make women’s identities more complicated, and not always as nice as we would like to imagine. Allowing women to express and experience these complex identities means accepting the good, as well as the bad.

Getting closer to gender equality means having the first woman in U.S. history win the nomination of a major political party, but also allowing American women to vote freely. Even if that means voting for an unqualified, sexist, xenophobic man instead.

Sweeper: The American Exception

America has a unique sense of nationalism that sets it apart from other countries. Unlike European nation states, America is not formed of a mostly homogeneous ethnic, religious, and cultural group. America, regardless of what the current president may think, is a nation of immigrants.

For immigrants, there is the pseudo-mythical lure of the American dream. And, as one of my colleagues points out, for Americans there is the fundamental, inarguable belief that they live in the greatest nation on Earth.

America is a country that was originally established with the desire to throw off the tyrannical rule that people felt was plaguing Europe at the time.  The second amendment exists in part to ensure that Americans have the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government.

It is therefore interesting to see how easily and comfortably Americans can adopt very extreme political views. A lot of this stems from the theme of blame and resentment. Blaming the “other” for everything that is going wrong in the country. One extreme example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, who felt that America was meant to remain a white nation and believed that the presence of the other, Catholics, Jews, blacks, was subverting this national destiny (Gordon).  

When a nation firmly believes that its own greatness depends on the extermination and erasure of the other, it inevitably creates and supports figures, such as Hitler, Windrip, and Trump, who have the power to do so.

 

 

Sweeper: It Can’t Happen Here

Our groups discussion of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” was centered on the historical context in which Lewis wrote his piece, more specifically focusing on Louisiana politician Huey Long’s potential challenge to President Roosevelt. Huey Long was assassinated shortly before the publication of “It Can’t Happen Here”, taking that into consideration many members of our group noted that Sinclair Lewis could have very well written his novel as a warning to the American public on the danger an authoritarian populist such as Long posed to the United States hoping that Americans would be able to recognize the signs of fascism and not be blinded by their own sense of exceptionalism. I could not help but wonder what it was about Huey Long that inspired such a sense of anxiety in Sinclair Lewis that he felt it necessary to write an entire novel essentially warning Americans about the danger he presented. Following the class discussion, I did further research into the background of Huey Long that both helped me understand the mindset of Sinclair Lewis and yet also raised many question on the nature of both populism and fascism. As the then governor of Louisiana Long implemented several extremely authoritarian policies, many of which are eerily reminiscent of those pursued by Adolf Hitler during the early years of his accession to power. Long purged the state government and bureaucracy of his political rivals, filled his cabinet with a network of loyalists and forced all state employees dependent on him to contribute financially to his personal “war chest”. Despite these authoritarian tactics what makes Long’s governorship particularly interesting is that rather than simply pursuing personal gain, Long utilized his over extended reach of power to serve his community. Long implemented massive public works programs within Louisiana which helped drastically lessen the impact of the Great Depression. He was also responsible for the creation of comprehensive social programs which made great strides in expanding the adult literacy rate within Louisiana. Being both a populist with the support of the masses as well as an authoritarian who utilized many of the same tactics as reviled fascist leaders throughout history it is easy to understand why Lewis so greatly feared the potential of individuals such as Long. The question remains, why it was only under an authoritarian such as Long that the government of Louisiana was able to meet its obligations to the people of the state? A trait of many populist regimes appears to be the strange blending of both authoritarian positions of the far right and progressive and popular policy of the left. A flaw which I feel plagues many of the responses to fascism is the disregard of the legit victimization which often preludes the rise of fascist regimes and the subsequent sacrificing of progressive policy in order to dismantle and prevent these regimes. My reading of Sinclair Lewis and following research into Huey Long has left me trying to understand why democratic regimes are often unable to pursue popular policy despite mass political participation, and why individuals so often resort to authoritarianism as the medium to achieve progressive change.

Sweeper: Windrip vs Trump

 

“It can’t happen here” by Sinclair Lewis has always been regarded as a political “work of art”, and after the group discussions, I can see why it is important especially in today’s history. The group began discussing how the book was written before World War II took place and predicted things that are taking place today in Trumps presidency. It was noted how when Lewis was in the process of writing the novel, he was just expanding his imagination by attempting to predict what would have happened if Hitler was in the United States or if his (much) lesser evil American-twin, Huey Long, won the presidential election vs Franklin D. Roosevelt (shortly before the release of the book, Huey Long was assassinated).  

The main striking similarity that Trump has with the protagonist of the novel, Buzz Windrip, is how both of them have won the presidential election by speaking out against immigrants and the media. Both Windrip and Trump have promised to create jobs for “Real Americans” to create a divide, and both of them shared one goal, making America Great Again.

Then it was mentioned how (back in 1935) people had argued that what was going on in Germany at the time can’t happen in America (hence the title). One person in the group mentioned that the book was almost written as a warning and nowadays it became more of an “I told you so” kind of book.

Americans and people from other nations that have a significant rise in numbers of white supremacist groups or any kind of hate group, can use this book (and Trump’s presidency) as a lesson to avoid the birth of another Hitler and cause more damage to the world than there already is.

 

Sweeper: Must populism be racist?

Most of our discussing this week focused on the definition of populism. The term is thrown around a lot but finding a definition is not an easy task. Linda Gordon, in her article, suggests that populist movement will often display 13 attributes. Our group did not have any problem with her definition, but Gordon’s thesis that the second Klan was the most prominent populist movement, was more controversial. The conversation came down to the question: Must populist movements be racist? We arrived at that question because Gordon suggests that demagoguery normally characterizes populism. And the only movements that she attributes as populists are racists, such as the Klan and the fascist movements in Europe between the wars.

Must a movement be racist to be able to pass all 13 attributes?  Some argued yes as extreme nationalism, one of the 13 attributes, breeds racism. Furthermore, defining the larger society as victims while also facing authoritarian leadership, two more attributes, is a ground ready for the marginalization of whatever group is making “the people” victims, such as the Catholics and Jews in the view of the Klan.

However, I argue that this is not the case. It is possible to meet these attributes without having a racist movement. For example, occupy wall street meets most of these characteristics. It is true that they do not meet them all. And it would be difficult to imagine occupy wall street with an authoritarian leader. Furthermore, it is more difficult to establish a mass movement when there is nothing to make the masses fearful off. Thus our discussion fell into a stalemate. Maybe one day a genuine populist campaign, according to Gordon, will grow and racism will not be its defining factor. However, until then, we can only theorize.

 

Sweeper: Sinclair Lewis and Historical Reading

This week we discusses the rise of fascism in the United States.  Writing in 1935, we have to keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis does not have all the information we have.  He has no knowledge of the Second World War, the Cold War, or the contemporary wave of populism.  During the time of his writing, the idea that a character like Buzz Windrip would be able to take over the government in a similar manner to that of Hitler seemed to be a very real possibility to him.  We can see this clearly through the blatant parallels between Huey Long and Buzz Windrip.  Long was an American Democrat and governor of Louisiana during the time of Lewis’ writing.  Long was known for his populist rhetoric and Lewis used this to create “It Can’t Happen Here” not only as a warning of the potential of populism, but also as a political attack ad against a potential presidential candidate he clearly did not like.  In the novel, Buzz Windrip has a meteoric rise to power, establishing the Minute Men to quell dissent and abolished congress in order to centralize his power.  This was Lewis’ idea of how American fascism might look but also a warning to readers of the time of what a potential run by Huey Long would look like.  In conclusion, while we read the works of Lewis, and other historical texts and apply it to separate historical events, as well as our contemporary world, it is important to keep in mind that the authors of these books display biases and do not automatically have correct ideas.  Lewis displays a world in which a populist leader becomes a dictator and Americans are eventually forced to revolt against him.  Just because he wrote it in his book, does not mean that is an eventuality of populism.

Sweeper: Mirror Mirror

Our discussion this week was not very fruitful as our group went off the rails due to a lack of reading. Our discussion became a heated debate regarding race and white privilege, a topic that has modern relevance but was not the focus of Lewis’ novel. From my own reading of It Can’t Happen Here, what I found interesting was the relevance the novel has to tactics used by politicians today. President Windrip in his novel seems fictional upon first glance. As you read, however, and ‘hear’ him speak you can almost believe the promises he makes. Like Trump, Hitler, and other politicians (not necessarily just the ‘evil’ ones too) there always seems to be an appeal to ‘traditional’ values. American, German, even Canadian nationalism is a tactic often exploited. Lewis’ understanding of the use of national pride was his key point to make on how dictatorships can arise.

It was discussed how this novel appealed to academics and uses language that is borderline satirical. While I agree that it was designed for a more high-brow audience, I believe that Lewis wrote it with the intention of anybody being able to pick it up and put yourself in Jessup’s position. Like the novel/TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that these sort of things could emerge. While academics dissect novels, the everyday reader digests them and will ultimately make comparisons between the book and their own lives. I believe that Lewis knew the different ways his book could be read and designed it to have multiple purposes.

Second Klan as a Case Study for Populism

Although every organization is different, Gordon’s article informs readers about some common characteristics of populist movements such as conspiracy theories, distrust of experts, extreme nationalism, isolationism, and victimization. The author writes that the Trump and Sanders campaign have been circulating discussions about populism. She also writes in detail about the KKK, and how its characteristics could fall under those of a populist movement. Indirectly, the author is trying to draw similarities between current American political parties, and the KKK of the 1930’s. Gordon however does not describe in detail the Trump or Sanders administration, their actions, mandates, or how they could be characterized as populist or similar to the KKK. If the message the author wanted to deliver was for us to be weary of present political atmospheres which could have devastating effects comparable to those of the KKK, then it could have been more effective if the author had specified some of the actions of ideologies of the Trump/Sanders administrations which she was concerned about.

Some connections can certainly be made between the Republican party and a traditional populist movement, for example the isolationist policies, the travel ban, and the conspiracy of ‘Islamophobia’, however Gordon does not go into hardly any detail of present American politics. If Gordon’s intent was to make warn people about the possible negative effects that actions and ideologies can have on parts of the population, then perhaps she could have spoken more about the current atmosphere in America, how people are being treated, and how they will be affected by upcoming policy implementations. If Gordon’s intent was simply to present current American parties as populist, then it is a wonder why she compared them to the KKK with it’s history of violence and human rights violations, as opposed to another populist movement which is more ethical, humane and successful.