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El Paso – the United States’ descent into xenophobic barbarism (part 16)

By Europaeus *

Continued from Part 15

In the wake of the El Paso massacre, which was followed by a second mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, roughly 13 hours later, Trump promised to give federal authorities “whatever they need” to combat domestic terrorism. He said law enforcement “must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs” and said he was directing the Justice Department ‘to work in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, as well as social-media companies, to develop tools which can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

But White House officials did not specify which new authorities are needed. Nor does the Administration’s record offer much hope. In its early days the Trump Administration gutted the Department of Homeland Security office which focused on violent extremism in the United States and pulled funding for grants which were meant to go to organisations countering neo-Nazis, ‘white supremacists’, antigovernment militants and other like-minded groups.

The El Paso terrorist was born in 1998, three years after the worst homegrown terrorist attack in American history at Oklahoma City.

In 1998 ‘white supremacists’ assembled in Toronto to hear Ms. Ingrid Rimland, a doyenne of neo-Nazism. She had been reared as a Mennonite, a peaceful religion with a long history of celebrating white ethnic identity. By then in her early sixties, Rimland was highly regarded for having embraced the nascent world wide web as an organising tool for ‘white supremacy’. From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, Rimland’s site, Zundelsite.org, served as a clearinghouse for Holocaust denialism and fascist news, blasting daily ‘Z-Grams’ into the dark corners of the web. Celebrations of ‘white ethnicity’ are rarely if ever innocuous.

Even before setting up Zundelsite.org, Ms. Rimland had been a pioneer of ‘white identity’ politics, and when she took the podium in 1998 in Toronto she explained that she would be discussing her evolution as an ‘ethnic’ writer. In her lecture Rimland credited her embrace of ‘white supremacy’ to her upbringing as a Mennonite, a faith generally associated with pacifism and agrarianism.

With the far-right surging worldwide, historians have come the better to appreciate that the taproots of racism reach deep into local contexts. Rimland’s life and writings help demonstrate how an individual’s turn toward intolerance always reflects a personal journey – how ‘white supremacists’ mine biography for the stuff of bigotry. Factors such as economic recession, mass migration and democratic malaise may conjure favourable conditions for far-right populism, but the paths societies take on the road to illiberal rule are always specific. That means that one may never again see a country exactly like Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany. But, by the same token, no country or person or religion is immune from the pull of the ‘far right’.

Rimland’s biography cautions the reader that all celebrations of white ‘ethnicity’ must be received skeptically. When viewed in historical context, they are rarely if ever innocuous. For white Mennonites in the United States in particular – who often continue to think of themselves as an ‘ethnicity’ – Rimland’s example should sound warning bells about the dangers of continuing to embrace this identity.

The Mennonite denomination of Christianity – barely two million members worldwide – is best known for the principle of Christian pacifism. During the sixteenth-century Reformation in Europe, early Mennonites, part of the larger Anabaptist movement, faced persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike. Thousands were beheaded, burned, or impaled for refusing to baptise their children into state churches or otherwise serve earthly rulers. Today a minority of Mennonites, like the Amish, avoid certain elements of modernity such as cars, telephones, and higher education and are ultraconservative, patriarchal, and homophobic. Most are not, however, and the church has a considerable liberal contingency.

Progressive Mennonites understand politics as the work of living together. They practice a faith which fosters debate and seeks to hear each person’s voice. Most congregations make their own rules and guidelines through democratic vote, and members are committed to inviting all participants to preach, teach, and hold leadership roles. This kind of political engagement usefully combats the apathy and individualism of the current neoliberal culture.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking whether the relationship between Rimland and Mennonitism was as surprising as it might appear on the surface. In recent years, Christianity has often seemed more a counterpart to far-right activism than a bulwark against it. Racist, anti-immigrant groups around the world justify their actions through various brands of Christian nationalism. In 2016, 81 per cent of white evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald J. Trump. Many Mennonites undoubtedly did the same.

Perhaps the most egregious of the denomination’s failings has been a propensity to excuse and even foster ‘white supremacy’. Ethnic parochialism would be familiar to Italian Catholics, German Lutherans, or Scottish Presbyterians. But white Mennonites’ chauvinism is in a class of its own. Despite – or possibly because – most Mennonites worldwide are now people of colour, white churchgoers often uncritically identify as ‘ethnic’ members, whose European ancestors allegedly survived centuries of persecution by marrying only within the faith.

‘Racial exclusivity’ is what Rimland most valued about her Mennonite heritage. “I never knew that anybody would want to be a mongrel.” she once told an interviewer. Rimland’s epic novel, Lebensraum! – a Germn word fairly difficult to translate; say, space required for life, Habitat – (Toronto, Samisdat Publishers 1998), portrays the denomination as an “ethnically savagely besieged community.” The main character, a blond and blue-eyed girl named Erika who is loosely based on Rimland, is less a person than an archetype. In Rimland’s telling, “her script was set more than four centuries ago. Her ethnic roots go deep into the soil of martyrdom.”

Most Mennonite families mat trace membership in Mennonite congregations to the Dutch Reformation. Their forebears are thought to have been German-speaking farmers who migrated in the late eighteenth century to that part of Imperial Russia which is now Ukraine. Catherine the Great had promised them religious freedom, exemption from military service, and financial benefits. In exchange, Mennonites pioneered the steppe for a hundred years. But in 1874 the Russian Empire instituted universal conscription, prompting a third of its pacifist Mennonite subjects to migrate to America.

Rimland first made her name in the late 1970s with a novel, The wanderers, (The saga of three women who survived, Concordia Publishing House, Saint Louis, Missouri 1977) which told of those German-speaking Mennonites who remained behind in Eastern Europe. The novel focuses on three generations of women who lived in the Soviet Union before and during the second world war, along with their subsequent migration to Paraguay. Rimland knew this history firsthand. Her earliest memories, from the late 1930s, were likely of Stalin’s ‘Great terror’ and its effects within her Mennonite colony, Molotschna. Soviet agents deported Rimland’s father in 1941, after which she lived with her mother and grandmother. During the second world war these women and their community cheered the arrival of Hitler’s forces. Rimland drew on her personal experiences when writing passages in The Wanderers about Mennonites leaving Ukraine in 1943 with the retreating Germany forces.

Reviewers of The wanderers assumed that, unlike her characters, Rimland did not personally hold the Nazis in high esteem. In an essay published in 1979, however, Rimland described how “the German Wehrmacht swept through our streets and into our hearts.” In a similar 1980 piece, she wrote about “the Eastern holocaust of 1945 when Berlin was put to the torch, when left and right of us the Wehrmacht was scythed from the earth.”

The modest success of The wanderers fell far short of Rimland’s hope for a meteoric rise, and afterward she flailed as a writer. Working as a school counselor in California, she contributed freelance columns to the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. Her articles reveal a craving for fame and fortune. In a fawning review of Donald J. Trump’s – and Tony Schwartz’s – The art of the deal (Random House, N.Y. 1987), Rimland likened the real estate developer to the character John Galt of Ayn Rand’s anti-egalitarian novel, Atlas shrugged (Random House, N.Y. 1957). Both Trump and Galt exhibited “boundless inner strength and sharply focused talent – iconoclastic in ethics, hard-working, impatient with trivia, loving excellence for its own sake, hating controls on ambition and drive, having megadreams of what mind and money can buy.”

As Rimland reached late middle age with little to show for her toil, she began inventing scapegoats. She returned again and again in her mind to the one shining moment of her career: The wanderers. Rimland developed a conviction that, from the beginning, vindictive Jews had sabotaged her endeavours. She claimed that The wanderers was on its way to stratospheric success – but then someone at Bantam, “a Jewish publishing house”, noticed the novel’s positive portrayal of Nazi soldiers. It seems that all remaining copies were shredded. “Here was this great big groundswell,” she alleged, “and the next thing, it was done. It was wiped out.”

Reviewers of The wanderers wrongly assumed that, unlike her characters, Rimland did not personally hold the Nazis in high esteem.

Rimland’s fortunes were about to change. In early 1994 the Institute for Historical Review – a Fountain Valley, California clearinghouse for anti-Semitic works and best known for publishing articles and books promoting Holocaust denial – published a glowing review of The wanderers, that Rimland had recently expanded and reprinted at her own expense. The Institute, founded in 1978, was then at the peak of its influence. It favoured a pseudo-intellectual style and used the euphemistic term ‘revisionism’ to describe its mission of undermining mainstream consensus about the Holocaust. The Institute’s review highlighted with approval the ‘ten per cent’ of controversial new material Rimland had added to The wanderers.

In September 1994 the Institute for Historical Review hosted its twelfth International Revisionist Conference, with Rimland in attendance. It was there that she would have her fateful first meeting with Ernst Christof Friedrich Zündel, a neo-Nazi German expatriate who ran a far-right press out of his fortified ‘bunker’ in downtown Toronto and who had already been gaoled several time for hate crimes.

Zündel impressed Rimland, and she was delighted to be interviewed for his television programme while he was in California. In the footage, Zündel’s flattering questions visibly thrill Rimland, who neatly slots her religious background and fiction into his line of ‘white supremacist’ inquiry. “Mennonites who created a community in Russia were totally, totally German,” she explained. Moreover, Hitler had been a liberator who “brought into our colonies the values that we had always held dear, namely the family cohesion, the pride in race, which was part of my upbringing.”

Rimland’s interview with Zündel inaugurated a business partnership. Financed by monthly $3,000 checks from Zündel in Canada, Rimland launched Zundelsite.org from her California home. Zündel and Rimland would marry in 2001, and move to Tennessee, where they lived in a romanticised chalet-style cottage. By 2003, however, Zündel had overstayed his United States visa, and after a protracted legal battle in Canada, he was deported to Germany, where he faced a lengthy imprisonment for inciting hatred. He died in 2007.

By 1998 Rimland was already an underground celebrity, drawing an eager crowd of ‘white supremacists’ for her Toronto lecture. Rimland had travelled there to promote Lebensraum!, her new trilogy. Like The wanderers, the novel was another saga of Mennonite history, but this time Rimland openly celebrated the Nazis and anti-Semitism. In a video of her speaking engagement, Rimland crafts her message around the trope of white racial persecution. “Who tells our children what we are all about?” she asks her audience.

This is when Rimland recounts her own ‘ethnic’ conversion. It had occurred in the late 1960s. She was living in Kansas with her first husband and their two sons, taking university classes despite her still minimal English. “I one day took myself to the library of the Mennonites.” – meaning the historical library and archives of Bethel College, a private Christian liberal arts university in Mishawaka, Indiana, “and started reading up on my own people.” Only through studying her heritage had Rimland learned to think of herself as part of a vibrant, superior culture. “That’s when I started writing The Wanderers,” she said.

Remarkably, Bethel College’s archive has record of Rimland’s research there. Cornelius Krahn, the library’s former director, an energetic archivist, editor, and historian, was a leading figure of twentieth-century Mennonitism. Like Rimland, Krahn had been born to a German-speaking Mennonite family in what is now Ukraine. He emigrated in the 1920s, achieving his doctorate in Nazi Germany in 1936. Krahn then migrated to the United States, where he eventually joined the faculty of Bethel College.

Rimland grew to consider Krahn a personal friend, and he later recommended her for a grant to research the book which became Lebensraum!

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Krahn helped craft a campaign which depicted Mennonites as a peaceful and persecuted ‘ethnic minority’. The purpose of this narrative was to allege that Mennonites in Europe could not have collaborated with Hitler’s racist regime. Krahn pushed his message among United Nations officials in order to aid his European friends and colleagues, from whom he simultaneously solicited articles for new ‘ethnic’ forums such as the magazine Mennonite life.

Tales of Mennonite suffering in the Soviet Union were central to Krahn’s ideology. He portrayed the once-flourishing colonies in Ukraine as a wellspring of historic peoplehood. Meanwhile, over 100,000 Mennonites, including members of Krahn’s own family, still lived in banishment in Siberia and Central Asia. Following a thaw in the ‘cold war’, he helped initiate a series of learning tours, in which North American Mennonites visited the Soviet Union. Rimland enthusiastically endorsed the idea: “I am so excited about the things I discover while reading about our past,” she confided to Krahn. “How much more meaningful would be a trip to the former Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine!”

More than 15,000 Mennonites who had collaborated with or accepted aid from Nazi Germany moved to the Americas. Most received United Nations refugee assistance by invoking the concept of ‘ethnic Mennonitism’.

Racists draw their power not from the margins but by engaging narratives which are recognisable, indeed core to large groups of people.

For Mennonites, moving forward will mean dismantling the language and logics of ‘ethnic peoplehood’. The concept is irredeemable. Krahn and other mid-twentieth-century church leaders promoted the idea precisely to help bury the denomination’s entanglement with National Socialism, and in so doing offered Rimland a robust language for launching her career as a prominent ‘white supremacist’. In turn, Rimland’s legacy persists among anti-Semites and other extremists. The hate she spread through her website, novels, lectures, and activism helped lay the groundwork for today’s global alt-right.

As a ‘white supremacist’, Rimland portrayed ‘ethnic’ Mennonite history as one of myriad tales of ‘Aryan’ persecution. This is the same logic which allows some white people to treat Confederate monuments as endangered heritage and which has prompted President Trump to tweet about ‘white genocide.’ Far-right movements spread because they harness narratives at the heart of what one thinks one’s own identity is, and then use those stories to push agendas of hate.

There is no single answer to far-right extremism, which is an ever-mutating, always-specific phenomenon. Each new guise requires a tailored response. (B. Goossen, The pacifist roots of an American Nazi, Boston Review, 2 May 2019).

By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency it had become apparent to U.S. officials monitoring ‘white supremacist’ threats that something serious was brewing at home. The prospect of the first black President sparked a sharp rise in far-right groups, from so-called ‘Patriot movement’ adherents to anti-government militias, according to analysts at D.H.S. The Secret Service took the unprecedented step of assigning Barack Obama a protective detail in May 2007, mere months into his campaign and long before candidates typically receive protection.

Mr. Daryl Johnson, who led a six-person group at D.H.S.’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, began working on a report about the rise of right-wing extremism. It warned that ‘white nationalists’, anti-government extremists and members of other far-right groups were seizing on the economic crisis and President Obama’s election to recruit new members. Johnson was preparing to release his report when a similar study by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, meant for law-enforcement officers, was leaked to the public in February 2009. The paper, titled “The Modern Militia Movement”, linked members of these militias to fundamentalist Christian, anti-abortion or anti-immigration movements.

The report was pilloried by Republican groups and politicians for singling out conservatives as possible criminals. Missouri officials warned Johnson about the blowback he could expect for publishing a similar analysis. But Johnson, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, said that he thought the D.H.S. lawyers and editors who worked on the report would provide a layer of protection from Republican criticism. “I didn’t think the whole Republican Party would basically throw a hissy fit,” he recalled.

But when the D.H.S. report was leaked to conservative bloggers in April 2009, it provoked an outcry from Republicans and conservative media, who painted it as a political hit job by the Obama Administration. D.H.S. Secretary Janet Napolitano, who originally issued a broad defence of the report, apologised to the American Legion for one of its most controversial components – a section which raised concerns about military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequently being susceptible targets for recruitment by right-wing groups. Johnson’s team was slowly disbanded; the number of analysts devoted to non-Islamic domestic terrorism dwindled from six to zero in 2010, he said.

The Missouri and D.H.S. reports were early examples of how the fight against right-wing terrorism would be hamstrung by politics. For years, “there’s been a visceral response from politicians that if these groups are being labeled as ‘right wing,’ then it’s Republicans who are responsible for those groups’ activities,” said Jason Blazakis, former director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office at the U.S. State Department, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, California. “It’s unfortunate, but I think in many ways this has resulted and served this reluctance in the Republican side to take as strong of action as they could.”

In interviews, veterans of the F.B.I., D.H.S. and other national-security agencies recalled moments during the Obama Administration when they realised the domestic-terror threat was expanding unchecked. In January 2011, local police in Spokane, Washington, narrowly averted a tragedy when they redirected a Martin Luther King Day parade away from a roadside bomb planted on the route, loaded with shrapnel coated with a substance meant to keep blood from clotting in wounds. At the time, it was one of the most sophisticated improvised explosive devices to appear in the United States. Two months later, the F.B.I. arrested Kevin William Harpham, 36, a former U.S. Army member linked to the neo-Nazi National Alliance. “I remember being like, ‘Wow, we have a problem’, ” recalls former F.B.I. agent Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The belief was always that this would be al-Qaeda, not a former soldier who is a white supremacist.”

In 2011 the Obama White House released a strategy “to empower local partners” to counter violent extremism. As part of that plan, D.H.S. official George Selim was placed in charge of leading these efforts as director of an interagency task force in 2016. Selim’s office of community partnerships, which had been set up a year earlier, grew to 16 full-time employees and 25 contractors, with a total budget of $21 million. As part of its work, it had $10 million in grants for local programmes to counter propaganda, recognise the signs of radicalisation in local communities and intervene to stop attacks before they happen.

But the Obama Administration was wary of the political blowback – according to a senior government official familiar with the efforts of the F.B.I. and D.H.S. – and mindful of the government’s lack of legal authority to monitor domestic hate speech, obtain search or surveillance warrants, or recruit sources. Meanwhile, the threat continued to grow, fuelled in online fora. In June 2015 Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old who posted on the neo-Nazi site Stormfront under the screen name “Lil Aryan” opened fire in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine parishioners.

Then Donald J. Trump won the White House. In the new Administration, efforts to confront domestic extremism “came to a grinding halt,” said Selim. The new Administration redirected federal resources on Islamist terrorism. Barely a week into his presidency, Reuters reported that President Trump had tried to change the name of the Countering Violent Extremism programme to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.

The Administration’s reconstituted Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention saw its mission expand while its staffing and budget were slashed to a fraction of what they had been, according to a former D.H.S. official. “The infrastructure we had labored over for years started to get torn down,” said Selim, who also led counter-terrorism efforts under President George W. Bush. “It has been decimated in the past two years under this Administration.”

The Justice Department also reorganised its domestic-terrorism categories in a way which masks the scope of ‘white supremacist’ violence, according to former F.B.I. officials who said that the change made it harder to track or measure the scale of these attacks, which are often haphazardly classified as hate crimes or deferred to state and local authorities. The lack of clear data impacts the resources that the F.B.I. can devote to investigating them.

A second senior government official, on conditions of anonymity to discuss the Trump Administration’s efforts, said that while F.B.I. analysts continued to issue warnings about the alarming patterns of ‘white nationalist’ radicalisation online, mid-level officials and political appointees quickly recognised that assessments which ran counter to what President Trump was saying publicly would fall on deaf ears. “That could cost you a seat at the table,” – the official said – “although there have been fewer and fewer tables to sit at and discuss intelligence and policy.”

As President, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by ‘white supremacists’. He famously blamed “both sides” for violence at a ‘white nationalist’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Asked if he saw ‘white nationalism’ as a rising threat in the wake of the 15 March 2019 attack on two New Zealand mosques by an avowed racist who killed 51 people, he countered: “I don’t really. It’s a small group of people.”

Image from slate.com

Continued tomorrow … (Part 17)

 

* Europaeus landed in Australia over fifty years ago. Except for the blue skies and starry nights between 02.12.1972 and 10.11.1975 the place has been constantly overwhelmed by what Hannah Arendt called the ‘sand storm’ – a metaphor for totalitarianism.

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  1. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    A significant article as the US is held up here as the standard model for a democratic society. Some appalling applications of this Dodgy Style of represnetative government are being applied here as far-right leaders like Clive Palmer spend millions on electioneering to distribute preferences to elect LNP Members:

    What did Clive Palmer buy for $80m election spend

    In workplaces, there are appalling levels of breaches of industrial codes and rampant tax evasion which is actually encouraged by the LNP through deduction loopholes and use of overseas tax havens.

    But the USA is also the land of modernism in lifestyles and politics. Hopefully there will be a readjustment in 2020 as the current era becomes a theme for future nightmares.

    I would be optimistic that change is underway in both the USA and here in 2020.

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