I. I want to talk to my family
In 1933, my great grandparents sent their youngest daughter to the United States of America. She was only 18, but her parents trusted her to survive. My great grandparents sent their youngest daughter to the United States of America and told her to make a new life and, if she could, help the rest of her family leave Germany.
Her siblings were able to join her in the coming years as she worked hard. She established citizenship as quickly as possible and did her best to help her parents move to New York City. When my great grandparents arrived they brought with them two golden stars. Had they fled one month later, they would have been turned away because the US had closed its borders to Jews.
I want to speak to them. I want to know what it was like for them. I want to know what they were thinking as they watched their country elect an anti-Semite. I want to know what they were thinking when they decided to make their youngest child leave her home, alone. I want to know what they wish their neighbors, the ones who weren’t Jewish, did. Because if the worst comes to pass (as unlikely as it is) I will survive. If my whole nation hardens its heart with hatred and becomes cruel, I will not be in danger the way my immigrant friends are. My freedoms will not be curtailed the way those of my female friends will be. I will have options to move, to insulate myself, in ways that my poorer friends cannot.
I want to sit down with my grandparents and hear what they were thinking when they said goodbye to their youngest child, not knowing if they would ever see her again. There was wisdom in that decision, a decision that led to a married couple arriving in the United States of America with two felt Golden Stars of David, rather than arriving at Auschwitz like so many others in my family.
This essay is the beginning of an exploration of what I think they would tell me.
II. Tribal minds
The human brain is wired for tribalism. We can overcome this handicap but it is always there, and for some of us it is harder to overcome this handicap than it is for others, especially when we hurt. Simply consider what happens after an act of terrorism; often the nation that was targeted bands together around the flag and proclaims violence against their aggressor. They create an enemy, real or imagined, to fight. They build an “us” and a “them.”
Clear acts of violence are not the only events that generate a mass desire for an enemy “them.” Anything unexpected, that rips apart what many thought were the normal rules of society and their lives, can do it. An economic shock, like the Great Recession, is a perfect example. As three million homes were foreclosed on in 2009 alone, many people around the United States needed to know what happened, and who to blame. They wanted justice for the devastation they felt in their lives and that justice had to be tribal in the form of a vanquished enemy.
In the wake of the crash, then President Obama worked to right the economy. But he failed, indeed he refused, to create an enemy. He was not willing to describe George W. Bush as the worst president since Herbart Hoover. He ordered his attorney general not to prosecute the CEOs of the financial institutions that created the crash and, instead, he helped bail them out. The recovery has disproportionately helped those at the top and while many in Middle America are better off, they are still anxious and want to know what happened. Obama’s Democratic Party failed to provide answers to them, it failed to capitalize on events like Occupy Wall Street that could have helped spread a leftist populist message. The administration simply enacted (insufficient) technocratic solutions.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the politics of power are no different. Seeking an explanation for their anxiety, many Americans found stories on the (far) right. The right wing media machine, from Rush Limbaugh to Fox and Friends, gave them a story of immigrants stealing their jobs. Of an illegitimate failed president. Of a world turned against them. The economy was being destroyed by an Other who was, more often than not, racialized and in cahoots with the elitist coastal Democrats. By the time Trump came along the ground was fertile for his message:
Your pain is their fault. It’s fault of the liberals who laugh from their urban mansions, calling you hillbillies, rednecks, and racists. It is the fault of the illegals, running across the border with the heroin and opiates that are wrecking your communities. It is the fault of so called “social justice” groups who undermine the American Values you were taught by your grandparents and that you teach your children. Those that call you racist, that say you are privileged and must pay for the sins of two hundred years ago—while you hope the factory doesn’t close and destroy your town—those are the enemy. They are the true racists, they are the ones who have left you behind to fill potholes by hand while spending money on people who don’t look like or sound like you. So let us keep the Other out, let us remove the Other from our lands, and let us Make America Great Again.
The USS American Economy seemed to split in half in 2008, and Obama loaded up the lifeboats to head for shore. But Trump and the (far) right were the ones who told them why they fell in the freezing water.
Unfortunately for us all, that was a story of division and hate.
III. Anti-hate must be deep
Removing hate’s hold on our government requires deep engagement with the root causes of the hate: anger, pain, and fear. It requires understanding the narratives behind the emotion and fixing the material conditions that make people susceptible to those stories, as well as providing an alternative narrative. Punching Nazis is, at best, triage; it is not nearly enough to rebuild society away from hate. Of course, this does not mean ignoring the propagandists of hate. They must be engaged with and countered, as a movement of caring seeks to pull the rug of discontent out from underneath them. Doing that requires understanding the material conditions that breed the anxiety in question, and how to improve them (without letting hatemongers take credit for it).
IV. Anti-hate must be proactive
To be truly effective, anti-hate must do more than respond. If someone is willing to proclaim themselves a Neo-Nazi on a nationally televised interview, we who want a loving society failed a long time ago. Understanding who is preyed upon by recruiters for hate groups like the National Alliance, and reaching those at risk first with an alternative is vital to keeping hate movements small and marginalized. That means learning the where, who, and how of recruitment for hate groups and targeting those places and people with deep, effective, campaigns so that what was once fertile soil for hate dries up.
That also means countering the spread of narratives in the broader society. When economic anxiety rises, there must be an alternative narrative to explain people’s falling material conditions. It must be simple, it must let them see themselves as the victim, and it needs an Other. The key will be providing an Other that is not racialized or built on hate, and whose defeat will benefit the vast majority. In the case of the Great Recession, that Other should have been wealth inequality and the greedy people who perpetuate it by risking our entire economy. By proactively spreading a narrative and solution is the best way to prevent a grand narrative of hate from reaching the highest echelons of power.
V. Anti-hate must be forgiving
This is the hardest component of fighting hate, in my opinion. People who seek a new life, attitude, and community that is not enshrined with hatred need to be brought into the fold. To a degree, this means forgiving heinous actions in the name of weakening hatred’s grip and accepting new allies and friends. Especially when this includes acts of physical violence, it is a hard pill to swallow. But to bring people around they must be give a chance to atone and be forgiven for their mistakes.
This does not mean anyone should get off scot free. I think there is a special obligation on those who open their eyes and seek a life after hate to help their former allies do the same. They should not be allowed to simply sit on the sidelines and try to forget their history—they must earn forgiveness by joining a movement of caring, and we who oppose hate must help them do this by at least providing that forgiveness.
VI. Anti-hate must be hopeful
All I have said so far requires hope and idealism. Without belief that people can and do change, there is no point in trying to change those filled with hate. Without faith that masses of people who oppose hate can make a substantive difference in crafting a narrative to reshape society to the benefit of all a mass movement worth being proud of is impossible. Without hope, moments—and years—like Donald Trump’s election will crush the seeds of (r)evolution.
Without hope, in the darkest hours of the darkest timeline I do not know if how anyone can find the strength to go on and protect those who need it.
These are all vagaries, but I hope they are vagaries that provoke thought and curiosity. In time, I hope to turn these principles and instinctual thoughts into something closer to a strategy for improving the world.