Come back in time with me to the middle of World War II, where I was growing up safely (one would think) in New York City. But, no, we lived one street over from 86th, where the Nazi bund, though outlawed, still had its adherents. My brother and I were walking home – aged about 7 and 9, and we must have seen a rally where people were raising their arms in the heil Hitler salute. We tried it on our parents and were soundly scolded. As the war dragged on, that encounter left me terrified of Nazis because I thought the war included our own neighborhood.
Meanwhile, here in the Detroit Metro area, Charles Lindbergh, a pro-Hitler America Firster who practiced Nazi eugenics by establishing an (Aryan) bigamist family in Germany, was given asylum during WWII at Cranbrook; Henry Ford was promulgating the (fake conspiracy theory) about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, delighted that Hitler was using it to persecute Jews; and, in Royal Oak Father Coughlin was pouring his hate for the Jewish race over the radio and from the pulpit of his Shrine of the Little Fascist in Royal Oak.
‘Rachel Maddow has just published a book about that era – PREQUEL (subtitled “An American Fight Against Fascism”) covering the rise of American Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s and 1940s. “Looking at this story in aggregate is a shock to our usual thinking about this historical period,” writes reviewer Kathleen Belew, “It’s an era that, as Maddow notes, is ordinarily remembered as a time when Americans unified against fascist threats.. . . most of us don’t know that the politics of the era were far more divisive than Greatest Generation mythologies would have us believe.”
Rachel Maddow is a very accomplished public intellectual, with an hour of political commentary that, until recently, appeared every night on MSNBC. She has a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford, does brilliant research, and talks very fast. Besides starring in the Rachel Maddow show, she writes history books about things that happened before and have been neglected or shoved under the rug, but which have important implications for what is going on at the present moment.
On the day after Thanksgiving 2023, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes (who has the MSNBC talk show before hers) sat down for a live taping at City Hall in NY for his podcast, “Why is This Happening?” Against the background of Rachel’s discoveries about American Fascism, they discuss its reappearance in our country and what it means, for our lives now. Their theme is that it is going to be weird, frightening and difficult year, when we will have to come to terms with “the existential threat that the rising tide of autocracy in America poses for our continuing to live in a democracy.”
Chris Hayes points out the “incredible ridiculous tension in American rhetoric” people use about our democracy, as if democracy were inevitable, a permanent fixture in our country, no longer challenged. Instead, he sees our whole history as an ongoing “Pitched battle” between people trying to get ourselves included in the precepts of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution and those who want to replace democracy with the efficiencies of authoritarianism At every point in American history there has beden this tension between “Dominion, rule by some group or person” vs all of us working to do things together. “ Or, as Rachel chimes in “Being in a 250 year old democracy is hard, and there are not very many left in the world, deciding things together. ”
What to do? Well, here’s The Gospel According to Rachel Maddow
“This is going to be a weird year. This is going to be a very difficult, frightening year. It doesn’t come to every generation, but it has come to us this time, this year. . . .“We must engage with terrible ideas and defeat them with better ideas.” Surprisingly, however, Rachel’s core advice is not intellectual: we can’t defeat their ideas with other ideas or policies with other policies when so much emotional inter-party demonization is going on; just sending up a Fox pundit against a MSNBC pundit isn’t going to get us anywhere.
In other words, one of our most famous and successful intellectual pundits has realized that neither intellectual argument or punditry, can save democracy.
What seems to have happened to Rachel Maddow is that she nearly killed herself (she puts it that way) doing a show every night of the week until she was threatened by the kind of thing that, in Japan, is called Karoshi – death from overworking. So she cut back, doing only the Monday show, and has moved to a home in the Massachusetts countryside with her wife: “living in rural western New England…it has taught me is that politics is only one thing in any one person’s life. .There is, I believe, something very important that you can do in your non-political life that can improve your political life: have face to face relationships with people that are everything besides politics. Know all the dimensions of your neighbors”
Her example: ” where I live now, Even committed news junkies also have bears getting into their trash; talk to them about the bears!” Your neighbors may have different political views than yours, but you can try to figure out how to solve your common problem!
My example: There is a couple up my street who have Trump posters all over their lawn at election time.. They also have a pollinator garden and plantings right next to the sidewalk. On my daily walk, I cross the street to enjoy their garden and in hopes of chatting with them, as they are out there all of the time. Once they know me, I plan to ask them their particular needs that lead to their voting choices. Following Rachel’s advice, the idea is that once they know me and that I am respect them enough to listen to their views they are more likely to at least listen to mine. .
Rachel adds that another way to resist demonizing people you disagree with politically is getting involved in something that connects you to them, through voluntary associations like PTAs, block clubs, and book groups.
She also advises keeping humanity in your life by getting back in touch with old friends, repairing broken relationships you may have ended long ago, including family members. That way, so that you aren’t dragging any heavy backage behind you. Also, make new neighborhood friends, especially with elderly folks who you might phone to check in on new and then – but don’t live in your phone and devices.
Deciding things Together
The Gospel According to Chris Hayes: You must use democratic means to fight anti-democratic forces.” Our situation is like getting on a bus with 60 people and asking them all to decide ‘where shall we go?’ Practice decision making with the people you don’t agree with”
This makes me think of Quaker decision-making, which is based on group consensus-seeking. Adam Gopnik has a great article in the New Yorker about Black Quaker Bayard Rustin, who was a lead organizer in the Civil Rights Movement (though he had to stay in the background because he was gay).
As a Quaker, he knew how to “find a way from individual crankiness to a working consensus” and to unite a coalition of fractious groups around a common cause. It was Rustin who, after a visit to India in 1948, brought the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, combining them with his Quaker skills to organize the 1963 March on Washington as well as the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Those of us who witnessed that era realized that there was nothing “soft” about the non-violent method: it was militant and tough minded and required extraordinary personal courage. As Gandhi puts it, “It is not nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the hater is the most difficult of all.”
How About Us? The kind of conversations we want to have with our opponents are an application of the nonviolence we saw in the civil rights movement to our everyday parlance. First of all, if we demonize those who demonize us, how can we claim ethical superiority? Secondly, as Rachel Maddow points out, ideas are not enough to get through; we need to set the emotional stage for the possibility of communication. When you interrupt or have anger in your voice, for example, you arouse emotions in the other person that wipe out their thinking capacity, substituting opinions for thoughts as everything dissolves beneath waves of antagonism.
So there we are on Chris Hayes’ bus, hoping to get someplace together, but so uselessly cantankerous and tribally unable to cooperate with any group other than our own that we can’t even leave the parking lot. The only way we can reach consensus is to transcend our individual suspicion and elf-protection, to wash off the groupthink glue that congeals us, and to open up our hearts, so that we can take the emotional risks necessary for concerted action.