Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blood and soil: white supremacists and the love of good things

The other night I fell into a rabbithole on Twitter and found some white supremacists. It made me think.

It's not the first time I've read white supremacist material on the internet. I research Nazis. There's, to say the least, a certain amount of overlap. A websearch on "Nazis" plus some other keyword will sometimes turn up, for instance, someone praising Nazis on their highly disturbing blog and detailing why they were right. And I'll admit to some fascination. Like a trainwreck, it's hard to look away.

There are certain recurrent themes in this kind of material--both modern and historical--that I wouldn't have expected to see back when everything I knew about Nazis came from school. One tends to picture Nazi Germany as a sort of industrial wasteland in the making, rather like an early stage of Mordor. So I was a bit surprised by the strong back-to-the-land emphasis, both from Nazis and white supremacists today.

So what I discovered on Twitter the other day was the hashtag "tradlife." Short for traditional life, it identifies a marriage of back to the land, family values, strongly hierarchical gender roles, healthy eating, celebrating cultural traditions... and white supremacy. One prominently placed message showed lovely pictures of young white girls dressed up in traditional costumes from Sweden, Scotland, etc, asked weren't they lovely, and then took a hard right turn into "Whaa??" territory: white people do have culture, the writer insisted, and don't "need Islam to 'enrich' them." When I was finally done puzzling over who had told this lady white people needed Islam to enrich them (I still wonder if she misinterpreted multiculturalism by accident or on purpose), I looked at the pictures again and saw something I had seen many times before.

A lot of white supremacists don't look nearly as scary as you think they're supposed to. A lot of them focus on, and post pictures of, very attractive things. There is a slogan often made into image macros, sometimes entitled "14 words" (watch out if you see that phrase online, it's a code): "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." It's often superimposed on very lovely and romantic images of white women and children. The phrase itself, especially with those images behind it, seems to focus on the protection of good things--children--and subtly implies its real message: the white race is threatened and we must fight back. (What they see as the great threat to the white race, by the way, is intermarriage with other ethnicities, which they believe is so frequent--and backed by conspiracy--as to pose a definite threat that sooner or later there will no longer be any white people. They will and do actually refer to this as genocide.) And in the process they often use images of--and declare themselves to be protecting--things that are personally very precious to me.

The Nazis used the phrase "Blut und Boden," meaning "Blood and Soil." It was about a people's sacred ties to their land. It was about farmers staying on their land for generation after generation and holding it in trust, cherishing it. Like Wendell Berry wants us to and so do I. It was also about the German people's spiritual, mystical ties to the German land, which were violated by anyone of the wrong ethnicity owning that land or living on it. And in the end it was about cleansing those "wrong" people from that land as if they were vermin.

They frame themselves as protecting the good and the beautiful. In its service they destroy.

Those images of children in traditional costumes are beautiful. There is nothing wrong with white people celebrating their ethnic heritages--on the contrary. I haven't read the book myself, but an African-American friend once told me about a book called How the Irish Became White. Irish immigrants to the U.S. were not considered "white people" in the early days, not really--they were considered dirty immigrants, "No Irish Need Apply." The author of the book argues that it was by defining themselves as "white" in opposition to black people that Irish immigrants (in general) gained the status they desired in their new country. Could learning and appreciating our specific ethnic roots--Irish, Swiss, Hungarian--loving them simply as ours, without notions of superiority--be a sort of way of reversing that process? Might loving the good and the beautiful that our ancestors handed down could help us to respect others' roots as well, or understand how awful it was when others' roots were taken from them when their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved or taken from their families or forced off their land? I feel like it might, if we do it in a humble spirit.

Or--if it's done in a spirit of aggressive, wounded pride--it could be very, very different.

I'm not certain what my point is today. I know that I'm troubled that I share a deep love of certain good things--the land, rooted traditions, family, food that you grew with your own hands--with white supremacists. I know that that doesn't make those things bad. It's a deep, complex, thorny issue, ethnicity and the love of a people for their land--as becomes richly clear when land is in dispute--but I know at least this: that love is not wrong, though terrible things can be, and are, done in its service.

Let's be careful, when people tell us the good and the beautiful is under threat. What if I didn't understand about Nazis? Would those lovely images put hooks into my heart? Would I wonder if the white race really was under threat? People often tell us things we love are under threat, when they want some reaction out of us. Let's be careful. Maybe that's an obvious lesson, but it's what I've got for today.

Also if you see the phrase "14 words" online, watch out.

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