30 December 2015: Make sure history doesn’t repeat itself

Make sure history doesn’t repeat itself

Recently, I wrote about how statements made by leaders can lead to violence, even when not intended. Then I specifically correlated false claims about baby body parts made by Republican presidential aspirant Carly Fiorina and others with the Planned Parenthood shooting.

Evidence has now surfaced that Donald Trump’s diatribes against Muslims and immigrants have become useful recruitment propaganda for white supremacist groups. In their Washington Post article, reporters Peter Holley and Sarah Larimer write that the Knights Party, a front for the Ku Klux Klan, is using Trump’s pronouncements as “a new conversation starter.”

It’s a “great outreach tool,” they write, “providing separatists with an easy way to start a conversation about issues that are important to the dying white supremacist movement.”

“One of the things that our organization really stresses with our membership,” Rachel Pendergraft, the Knights Party’s national organizer told them, “is we want them to educate themselves on issues, but we also want them to be able to learn how to open up a conversation with other people.”

Frighteningly, they write that Trump’s candidacy “has electrified some members of the movement.”

“They like the overall momentum of his rallies and his campaign,” Pendergraft said. “They like that he’s not willing to back down. He says what he believes, and he stands on that.”

Watching Trump’s rallies has provoked within me a discomfort. The clamoring tenor and the visuals—overwhelming white—evoke scenes reminiscent of 20th century events that took place in Munich, Germany beerhalls but could have easily happen in America.

In a suburban San Francisco high school in 1967, first-year social studies teacher Ron Jones sought to motivate his otherwise bored and listless students through a simulation activity in which they would assume roles of members of an autocratic society. He began by having them march in place, slowly at first and then more rhythmically in cadence.

The next class period, to his surprise, his entire class had worn white shirts, which became their “uniform.” Excited he was on to something, he soon told his students that they were part of a national youth movement. It grew from there with horrific results. Students who were repelled by the idea and courageous enough to speak out against what was happening, which by then had spread to other area highs schools, were shouted down, ostracized, and beaten.

After realizing the magnitude of what was unfolding, Jones arranged for an assembly in the school’s auditorium so he could reveal to the excited mass their national leader. What they saw when the film began rolling was a clip of Der Fuhrer Adolph Hitler exciting his masses in his evil, egomaniac way.

The students were shattered as was Jones’ career. “Some are crying,” he said in an interview four decades later. “Some are bursting out of the room. It had gone way too far. I was lucky I could bring it to an end.”

Jones’ experiment, dubbed The Third Wave reminiscent of the Third Reich, has been retold both in print and film.

“Both the Third Wave and Jones are known everywhere but in the United States and especially here in the Bay Area, where the experiment took place,” writes Sam Whiting on the emagazine SFGate. My hope is that that changes. Google “The Wave” to read or view the chilling story.

What happened in Jones’ classroom was tragic, yet it serves as an iconic reminder about how even Americans, entrusted defenders of liberal democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution, can fall prey to such machinations.

As much as I despise what Trump is postulating, it’s hard for me to imagine that he intends for his words to serve as fodder for neo-Nazism. But they are, and he apparently is in denial of the venomous snake that he has created, the tail of which he grasps.

In 2008, Jones had the opportunity to reunite with some of his former students at a Sundance film festival at which he could hear personal accounts about how traumatic the experiment had been on them.

Afterwards he said, “It’s like a secret that we have. We know there are monsters within us.”

Those monsters lurk in our shadow, America’s dark side. 2015 has witnessed America at her worst. But as the great 20th-century philosopher Albert Camus points out, “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”

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