America and the Ugly History of Racism

Adam Gravano


While the Cold War abounds in dispiriting episodes in national and foreign policy, possibly one of the most interesting is in the opening moves of the protracted confrontation. While Operation Paperclip is more famous, due to the catchy name and the role of Werner von Braun in the highly public space program, the 1946 foundation of the Gehlen Organization from the remnants of the Nazi military intelligence apparatus is unique in its amorality. The organization's main purpose was to utilize Nazi intelligence networks in Eastern Europe, but according to the more interesting parts of Martin A. Lee's The Beast Reawakens, it also created a sort of vehicle for the clandestine organization of fascist organizations in Europe.


Despite being vanquished in the Second World War, the seemingly surprising fact that these groups never really left, even where they had the most detrimental impact, is worth mentioning before we approach anything more present. Another fact is that while many things have served to make more distant and more hostile to one another the American left and right, there seems to be some agreement on a time period, from the 1960s until the 1990s, for when it all started to go wrong, despite the variation in the causal factors. While it might just be Baby Boomer navel gazing, the broad agreement on period, even if there's no agreement on cause, might be of interest.


Looking to the renewed interest in the far reaches of the American right, we see some reflection of this line of thought in two recent books of note: Kathleen Belew's Bring the War Home and Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies. The two books are vastly different in their focus. Nagle focuses almost exclusively on the online presence of the alt-right and its relationship to other online cultural trends; on the other hand, Belew focuses on the earlier interrelationship between white power groups and ideologies and paramilitary groups. While Kill All Normies focuses on a recent trend, Bring the War Home focuses mostly on events that happened before 9/11.


Beginning chronologically, Belew begins with the relationship of members of a generation of returning Vietnam War veterans to a narrative of a population and political class that had betrayed them. While Belew correctly notes the role of disaffected veterans in extremist groups of the 1970s, the betrayal myth or a national humiliation myth, however factual, can be a common feature among fascistic ideologies.



While earlier iterations of Klan activism had or sought a more cooperative relationship to one or more levels of government, be they local or, in the case of the second revival Klan harassing Quakers to make them purchase war bonds, even federal, the post-Vietnam Klan groups sought a more adversarial relationship — even as some among them, like David Duke, sought political office. Belew established linkages and a history that connects older forms of white power ideology in the United States, like the Klan and its revivals, and newer, like sects among the militia movement. The book picks up where Wyn Craig Wade's magisterial study of the history of the Ku Klux Klan, The Fiery Cross, drops off and is a useful scholarly tome. Where it is lacking, however, is an area it touches on only briefly: the formation fo LibertyNet and the efforts of racist groups, beginning in 1983, to use the internet to network and, later, to promote themselves.


This brings us to the second volume, a shorter book that gave the reader a slew of potential areas for further exploration with no means helpful means of finding their way there: Kill All Normies. While Nagle's book will last you an eight-hour Amtrak trip or a day flying across country, what it won't do, on account of there being no bibliography, is help you find the source matter. The book describes, in brief, several movements loosely connected by being the bugaboos of the net surfing progressive.


While Belew focuses primarily on an account of what happened, Nagle focuses on how online culture developed from the lighthearted irreverence of its early years to the garish offensiveness of today.


Nagle interestingly advances the concept of a sort of linkage between online atmospheres, particularly with mention of the relationship between the Tumblr photo and video blogging platform and Reddit's r/TheDonald. As Tumblr pushed further to the left, r/TheDonald pushed further to the right in a sort of unconscious process fed by responses to responses to responses, each more heated.


Without specific mention, this describes a sort of psychological reactance: where one party sees another as attempting to foreclose on its rights or freedoms, and thus more vocally asserts them. Nagle also correctly identifies the drawbacks of the notional issues and the cultural definitions of right and left: “In this style of politics, what a political leader actually does often seems entirely secondary to what cultural politics they profess to have.


In modern politics, liberal leaders are forgiven for drone bombing as long as they're cool with gay marriage, while on the right, enacting policies that devastate families and stable communities was cheered on at any cost as long as it dealt a satisfying blow to the trade unions.” This takedown and the arrival to it is the redeeming feature of Kill All Normies. While the book is factual and well-argued, it doesn't give the reader any hope for follow-up reading.


Though both books focus on different aspects of the cultural environment, there are some areas of common territory. While Nagle discusses the countercultural aesthetic of transgression as an initial source of the push towards right-wing ideologies (an aesthetic bemoaned on the right by the likes of Tom Woods and Paul Gottfried among others), Belew discusses a broader wave of discontent with government arising in the 1970s.


Much like social conservatives bemoaning the sexual revolution or aging hippies kvetching about Richard Nixon, they locate the roots of these movements in trends dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Another area of mutual interest is the role of womanhood and its purity. Belew devotes a whole chapter to images of white womanhood, purity, and motherhood and their significance. While one might find it hard to see in Nagle's discussion of “Sadean fantasy” in online woman hating, it's highly present in the discussion of the term “cuckservative.” In this term we can see a thread connecting the various waves of Klan activism to the 1980s white power movements to the alt-right of today.


Looking to the past is valuable in its own right, but it can also give us the keys to the present. While volumes like these are crucial to the discussion of the role of political extremism, they're not the only sources scholars may turn to. Although both do a great job of discussing their subject matter, my mind turns to the difficulties potentially faced by future scholars after waves of de-platforming and deletion.


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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