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Against My Piece on The President in Poland

Against My Piece on The President in Poland July 9, 2017

A good friend and historian was not pleased with my piece on the President’s visit to Poland. I appreciate different perspectives and so publish this excellent rejoinder without immediate comment. I will respond separately tomorrow so the piece can stand in its integrity.

Her thoughts below:

 

I must confess first that the part of this piece that irks me the most is the title: Mr. Trump Goes to Poland. And it irks me because it exhibits the exact inversion of power dynamics that I’m going to describe in this response, as well as those which convinced otherwise good-hearted people to vote for a predatory man who proposed policies of oppression, scapegoating, and physical violence. Mr. Smith went to Washington to serve his constituents and build a camp for underprivileged boys he mentored. Mr. Trump called for the illegal execution of five wrongly accused boys as the first act of his political career. The comparison, even in mere syntax, feeds the narrative Trump tries to spin of his own victimization.

Your piece is thoughtful and rightly points out some important statements made about Poland’s history and Soviet Russia’s role in its plight. We should acknowledge those things, but we should not speak as if they are extraordinary. For this president, and this administration, they are, perhaps, a new thing. But none of these things have been unsaid by US presidents in the past, and the acknowledgement of both Poland’s suffering and Russia’s role in it is nothing novel or useful. It is nice to remind President Putin that we continue to remember Russia’s history of aggression in eastern Europe, but that is a meaningless gesture when this administration winks at Russian aggression in the Ukraine and cyberspace.

It seems to me that you are encouraged by this speech because (1) it elevates Poland and (2) it affirms our commitment to defending “western values.” These are both, perhaps, good things. But both the text of the speech and the character of the administration that produced it immediately require a much more critical eye than your piece gives it.

The core problem is context. The president stood in the square where thousands were murdered by Nazis, thousands who expected Allied aid that never came, and he did so as the first US president to play footsie with NATO’s Article 5. He praised a Poland of the past that overwhelmingly stood between tyrants and their victims, a nation in which the highest proportion of individuals chose to sacrifice themselves in order to personally hide Jewish people from Nazi death squads, and he called Poland’s current refusal to accept today’s refugees a continuation of that spirit instead of what it is: its betrayal.

The trick of white nationalism is to pretend the power dynamic is inverted. The conquerors, therefore, only conquer out of fear of conquest. The oppressor only oppresses to prevent greater oppression. Throughout our history as a nation, the United States has perfected this inversion and presented it for generations as fact. We need look no further than our history textbooks, books that present the early history of this nation as a brave struggle for freedom against a tyrannical European monarch rather than an invasion that began a country literally built with slave labor. That invasion necessitated a piecemeal ethnic cleansing of the Native people of this continent, and since its first concerted effort in King Philip’s War, the tale has been retold with the fervent hope to cast the invaders as the victims. That telling has been most successful in cases where Euro-Americans were able to meet their military goals, having either killed or enslaved enough of the Native communities in the conflict to silence their narratives.

The history of Euro-American attempts to eradicate Native culture, either through physical violence or forced assimilation, is far too complex and lengthy to recount here. (If you want to read more about this historiography, there’s no better starting place than The Standing Rock Syllabus: link: http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/10/nodapl-syllabus-project/#.WWGt8MaZN-U) But it offers us a lesson in understanding how white nationalism works when it is most successful, and the inversion of power dynamics which casts the invader as the defendant is key. The very fact that calling American history a history of invasion and occupation is controversial is proof enough of how effective white nationalism has been in shaping our public memory.

That is what was at work in the speech this week, and it is vital to remember both the context of the Trump administration’s guiding ideology as well as the political moment in Poland. On the administration’s part, this president has made his political career and gained power by scapegoating ethnic and religious minorities. His entire career, both private and (now sadly) public has been one tinged with incitement to racial violence, be that economic or physical. Now, Bannonists in his administration are showing us that they know how to use him to advance their goals. It works, because like C.S. Lewis’s dwarves in the Last Battle, Trump is for Trump.

It also works because people of goodwill see what they wish to see in these moments. David French published a piece this weekend in which he argued that this speech was a righteous blow for western values against universalism. His point, which it seems many conservatives of goodwill support, was that there is something distinctive about western virtue, and pretending that all good values are shared by all cultures is disingenuous. It is a nice idea, and seems innocuous, even wise. But my study of history consistently shows me that there are few things that lead to violence more readily than the belief in the unique righteousness of one’s own way of life. More important, there are few things that prevent it more thoroughly than the recognition of shared values.

When we decide, as Mr. French has, that there is something distinctive about western family values, for instance, something that other cultures cannot share with western cultures, we can never truly avoid placing a higher value on the family values we know than the ones we don’t. That doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge that families may function differently in different cultures, of course. The Euro-American nuclear family looks quite different from the Middle Eastern extended family as core community, for example. But when we act as if western family values are something that needs protecting from southern or eastern family values, we get a refugee policy that only acknowledges the immediate, nuclear family as a legitimate family (link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/travel-ban-who-is-close-family/?utm_term=.fd1baa02b27b). Logical in a situation in which the administration wishes to limit the ability of refugees to claim refugee status, yes. But also purposefully discriminatory against a culture in which those relationships have entirely different structures, ensuring that only those “like us” will gain entry.

Which brings us back to Poland. Long gone are the days when the political will of the Polish people was to protect the ethnic and religious minority from persecution from outside. The Law and Justice Party, citing concerns that Poland would need to “change its culture” to accommodate refugees, gained power in the wake of concern over the European refugee crisis. This crowd embraced Trump with unbridled enthusiasm, a stark contrast to his reception in nations with far different responses to the refugee crisis. And yet you express hope that in this context, the president’s statement that “We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent.” is a statement against the white nationalism of the alt-right as well as against radical Islamic terrorism, because white nationalism is set against those same values.

I can’t agree, because that is the trick of white nationalists. Miller and Bannon can write those words for the president to say, and the president can say them in the presence of the leadership of Poland, and all of those people can mean, fully and completely, that their policies of scapegoating and persecuting ethnic and religious minorities are in fact a defense of western values, while you and other true conservatives can believe they are affirming the exact opposite.

But the president made his intention perfectly clear when he added “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.” Those words may have well have been emblazoned alongside “Serve Your People” on the Identity Evropa stickers white nationalists plastered over my university campus last fall.

This is why it is vital for us to do several things. First, we cannot congratulate veiled white nationalism and allow this administration to wink at the alt-right and other groups that stand against the progress that, against our own impulses to the contrary, we strive to make in race relations. Second, we cannot allow our leaders to applaud allies as they use the true heroics of past generations to justify their own persecution of people fleeing for their lives and antidemocratic crackdowns on citizens who would speak against it. Third and most important, we must get our own house in order. We must own our own history. We cannot allow the romantic notion of “defending the values of the West” to cloud our judgment of the things that have been done in that name, or the things that we continue to do.

Delenda est Bannonism. But Bannonism is not simply about defeating liberalism. It is, at its core, white nationalism. Partisanship is just a means to that end. If we want to defeat Bannonism, we have to confront all of it. The most effective way to do that, of course, is up for debate. But we have to make sure we don’t make the mistake of emboldening Bannonism in our desire to encourage the best while discouraging the worst in this administration.

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Tomorrow a piece by a Trump supporter and academic who is not fond of my piece!


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