On returning home from Germany, I was startled to hear a voicemail from a white supremacist campaigning for President. It repeated the old trope that there is a genocide being perpetrated on the white race. In the United States, we often throw around words like “Nazi” and “genocide.” Seinfeld’s funny “Soup Nazi” story is one thing, but ridiculous demonizing of political opposition is another. The Iowa Tea Party offered one blatant example, but so do national commentators warning of “liberal fascism” or labeling conservatives “Nazis.” We should sober up and remember what real genocide looks like.
In Democracy and Leadership, one of the key virtues of democratic leadership I wrote about is moderation. Today people so often dismiss moderation, seeing it as a weakness of will, as a lack of principled character. I find that view tragic, as it inspires such polarization that even the Federal government was shut down in 2013, despite the fact that the world is watching and the credit rating for U.S. debt was downgraded in 2011. Unstable societies are risky investments, as are unjust societies.
Moderation proves to be one of the deepest challenges for democratic societies, I argued more recently in my forthcoming Uniting Mississippi. Moderation is the virtue that aims to achieve unity. If you can’t moderate differences, unified groups tear apart and become several, rather than one. At the same time, of course, there can be delusional, hateful, or simply ridiculous ideas about unity. One of them is the white supremacist’s outlook.
The white supremacist thinks that there’s a need for greater unity among white people as a race. It is one thing when a group has systematically been targeted and oppressed, such as in slavery, the Holocaust, or Apartheid. Such group solidarity in those conditions is understandable, for people need to express pride and unity in their identities as survivors of horrible atrocities and continuing prejudice. Even in such cases, however, no reasonable group calls for purity of its race. Only white supremacists believe that interracial marriage is a threat to a race.
A little over a week ago, I had the sobering opportunity to visit a real genocidal institution. The Dachau concentration camp was built for holding around 5-6 thousand imprisoned workers. By the end of World War II, it held 32,000. To deal with the mass of people and to quell their number, the Germans had created gas chambers, which could kill large groups at once. To avoid resistance to entering the gas chamber at Dachau, the Germans had labeled the door “Brausebad” – “Shower.”
Once people were killed, they were moved to the ovens, photographed in the featured image above. Part of what was so disturbing in all of this was the thoughtful reasoning that went into controlling people and disposing of them. To convince people that the “Brausebad” really was a shower, and not a gas chamber, the Nazis had installed false shower heads. For the visitors like myself, the covers were removed from many of the shower heads, revealing a closed cone above. There was no water pipe. This was simply the illusion meant to make it easier to slaughter people. Here is a photo of the covered and uncovered shower heads, side by side:
Having visited the truly disturbing and sobering Dachau camp, all I could think was that the white supremacists campaigning for President are tragically misguided and absurd. Some people are so lacking in sense that they actually believe that white folks are under threat as a group. The level of such nonsense is deeply saddening.
The call I received was eerie, partly because the voice didn’t sound quite right. It was a woman’s voice, and it was somewhat realistic, but you could tell that the message was one of those recordings generated by a computer voice – just a pretty good one. It read a message that began with formulaic language I have received before from white supremacists. It said that there are countries for these kinds of people and those, so there should also be countries for white people.
Adding to the absurdity of the call is the fact that the United States is a highly religious country. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan now denies that it is a hate group. They have long called themselves Christians. It is long past time to remind people that such views call for seeing all people as kin, as children of the same God. Using the Christian religion in service of hate or disunity is a gross perversion, yet as I have argued, even in the most religious state in the U.S., Mississippians are recalcitrant even when religious leaders call for progress and unity.
We need to take the aim of unity seriously. We need to stop using demonizing language lightly and foolishly. We also need more people to see the effects of such crazy polarization and disunity, which have led even to campaigns for the Presidency from white supremacists. We don’t need delusions of genocide, when there are disturbing and tragic examples of the real thing.
To close, I thought about sharing with you a photo of a mountain of dead, skeleton-thin bodies. Instead, I’ll leave you with a photo I snapped at the Jewish memorial at Dachau, which was immensely beautiful and moving for me.