By Niyi Osundare
The journey from hate to holocaust
Is perilously short….
(from ‘Ode to Hate’)
Trail of Tears
The two-line snippet above came to me (or was it I who walked up to it?) in my poem “Ode to Hate”, written in the mid- nineties, provoked by the wrenching crises of the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflicts. As I watched throngs of displaced human beings, harried, traumatized, and dispossessed, being loaded on those long trains to refugee camps and other wildernesses of agony and misery, my mind went forcibly back to similar scenes between 1939 and 1945, when those crowded locomotives blighted Europe’s landscape before terminating their journeys-of-no-return in gas chambers and hurriedly dug graves for persecuted Jews.
My mind also went three, four centuries back to those long lines of enslaved women and men, stripped of their clothes and dignity as they were marched in yoked formations from Africa’s hinterland to the slave ships waiting rapaciously on the coast, the jangling thunder of their chains overwhelmed by the voracious thunder of the waves. Terrible formations, those lines,terrible travails of the trekkers, their destinies fractured and mortally wounded, their foot prints silent and deafening,indelible and unforgiving.
These recollections took hold of my mind as a new century and a new millennium were about to dawn. The dying died; the weeping drowned in the ocean of their tears; the wounded were left to lick their wounds. The scars live stubbornly on like obscene maps on the skin of our human universe. Naively (as I have now come to realize), I thought the new century/millennium were here to sweep away the murderous monstrosities of their predecessors, or, at least, learn a few lessons from their costly errors, and chart a different course. But our welcome song for the new temporal milestones had hardly reached the last stanza when a gruesome devastation was unleashed on the United States on the eleventh day of the ninth month of 2001, an attack funded and remotely controlled by Al Qaeda from ancient caves of Afghanistan. Hundreds of human beings perished; the magnificent Twin Tower went down in a hail of ashes, and the shock reverberated around the world.
A retaliatory campaign against the perpetrators of this terrorist act was later compounded by a new utterly unprovoked war against Iraq: the American government and its army claimed they invaded that country in order to destroy weapons of mass destruction that later turned out to be non-existent. This war and its aftermath disrupted the profoundly delicate ethnic and religious balance of Iraq, and to this day, peace and genuine civil governance have yet to return to the Land of Two Rivers which once nurtured one of the oldest civilizations in human history. The bungling of the post-war situation in Iraq led to the death and brutalization of millions of people, the destruction of once thriving cities, the destabilization of substantial portions of the Middle East, and the rise of ISIS, one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world. Up to this day, the powerful invaders have not uttered a word of apology for the deadly miscalculation that led to that extremely costly war. And so began the escalation and dispersion of terror in the Middle East and far beyond its reaches.
This terrorist plague has infected many parts of Africa: Somalia and Kenya where it has produced one of the largest refuge populations in Africa’s history; in the Sahel regions of West Africa where “jihadist” militias have compounded the plight of countries already ravaged by drought and poverty with wanton bloodletting; in Nigeria where for many months Boko Haram literally delegitimized the natonal government by corralling a big chunk of the northeastern parts of the country under its terrorist control. Nigeria’s reputation has yet to recover from the ease and total mastery with which that odious gang abducted almost 300 high school girls from Chibok High School and the incredible lethargy and damnable irresponsibility of the Jonathan government. Now, those poor girls are being released a dozen at a time, many of them carrying babies fathered by their Boko Haram abductors, as they, their parents, and their irresponsible country nurse the wounds that may never heal. For the first time since the civil war, Nigeria is saddled with a throng of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), with refugee camps brimming with desperate adults and malnourished children.
And talking about refugee camps and their hapless human inhabitants, we remember those mega shacks in Lebanon fed ceaselessly by escapees from the devastated cities of Iraq and Syria; the ones in Uganda already a sickening megalopolis of agony and misery for desperate human beings from the El Shabab-ravaged Horn of Africa; the interminable streams of Rohingya people fleeing death and despoliation in their native Myanmar to an already overpopulated Bangladesh – with the haunting pictures of their rickety boats, the lines (yes, those lines again!) of pedestrians, with children weeping in their mothers’ arms and the aged mounted precariously on the backs of emaciated human carriers. And the sagas of their devastated dreams in Myanmar: their burnt houses, raped women, slaughtered men; and the horrible heat of hate hanging over that land like a mean, impenetrable penumbra. . . .
The refugee plague came knocking on the golden gates of Europe a couple of months ago when escapees from the Middle East wars defied distance, foul weather, and all imaginable odds as they trooped to the cities of Europe and demanded urgent hospitality from their European hosts. A moral, existential drama overrode the politics of the whole event as many of these refugees actually staked their claim to human dignity and their right to decent accommodation and attention in whatever land their political affliction might have led them. Beggars who insisted on having a choice, many of them actually dictated what European country they wanted to settle in, and rejected offers that did not agree with their wish. Not even the spiked fences of some of their dream countries could hold them back. Not even the legion of armed border patrol could intimidate their desperate resolve. Europe was confronted with a poignant dilemma: turn these refugees away and flout Europe’s much touted moral principles, or take them in and face dire political repercussions. In the end, the gut-wrenching picture of the body of a young boy washed ashore from a wrecked boat laden with refugees, tilted public opinion slightly towards sympathy for the migrants, but this tragedy was not enough to dent the carapace of resistance of the Europe-for-Europeans nationalists who would rather have these unwanted strangers shipped back to their beleaguered countries.
It was a moment in world history that called for a steadfast, courageous, and humane leadership. Germany’s Angela Merkel led the group of European leaders who chose the path of honour by putting moral consideration over political opportunism.She opened the door for the refugees, thus taking a risk whose political backlash was evident in the success of her ultra-right opponents in the recent German elections, but which, nonetheless, has catapulted her to the well-deserved status of the most respected leader in the Western hemisphere today.
Coming soon after Brexit, that supreme act of in-folding by which Britain decided to go it all alone by severing its bonds with its European Union partners, the Middle East migration issue seemed to have stoked that fire of xenophobia and racial paranoia that had been flickering in the West for a long time, and was soon to erupt into a blaze with the election of Mr. Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, and his demagogic “America First” slogan .
Seasons of omen. These, no doubt, are seasons of omen. Of sleepless nights and restless days. The sun shudders behind the clouds; the moon lingers pale in the midnight sky. Old monsters, long buried and apparently forgotten, are rearing up from their graves, draped in the virulent shrouds of their past enormities, embraced like sacred ancestral masquerades by new acolytes, hailed and venerated with banners and buntings. In the United States, the most powerful country on the planet, Mr. Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” by basing his campaign rhetoric and political manifesto on a racist, sexist, and xenophobic platform, dreaming up a past when America was white and pure (which it never was) and strong and dominant and feared by all. He promised to build a wall, a “beautiful wall”, to fence in that fantasy America and fence out the human vermin from the other parts of the world – especially those he demonized as rapists, drug peddlers, criminal gangs, and other undesirables from the Hispanic south,and”radical Islamic terrorists” from other parts of the globe. He alarmed the world with the sheer audacity and stridency of his sermon of hate and severance. He bragged, he stood truth on its head, and demolished his Republican primary opponents by diminishing and dehumanizing them in a language whose grossness and crudity are unprecedented in the annals of American presidential political discourse. His words – and actions – dripped with shocking impunity, with a raw, unrestrained, unreflective impulse, too hidebound to be sensitive, too cocky to be considerate. There was something frightening in his physiognomy, something threatening about his gestures. A friend of mine told the story of his grandson who, upon seeing Mr. Trump on television, would scream “Grandpa, grandpa, that man again!”, curl up in a foetal position, cover his face with his hands, or rush to the bedroom, panting. The day Mr. Trump boasted on the campaign trail that he could stroll down the street, shoot someone out there, and just walk away unasked, unchallenged, and his screaming supporters cheered while the rest of the world was thrown into shock and consternation, I smelt from a very close distance the germs of egotistical fascism. I knew how close the Barbarians were to the gate of the Empire.
Well, since the Trumpite eruption in the closing months of 2016, the United States, nay the entire world, has never been the same again. We are witnessing an unfolding drama of abominations and grotesqueries, horrible nightmares in the height of noon. A new ideology named Trumpism is up and about, not just on the Capitol Hill, but in American classrooms, college campuses, workplaces, markets, religious houses, stadia and other playgrounds, hospitals, military practices and protocols, personal relationships, and, most insidious of all, in the consciousness of millions of people already infected with this political virus. Those satanic ghosts of the past we thought we had laid to rest under the forgotten heaps of history are back with a vengeance.
This is a season of crushing squeeze and constriction. Once again, people, especially foreigners and people of colour, are forced to look over their shoulders as they walk in the streets; stumble and shudder as they hear racial slurs screamed at them from passing vehicles;listen with trepidation and surprise as formerly friendly neighbours ask “Hey, when are you going back to your country?”; when ‘native’ colleagues resent their immigrant counterparts because they think the latter have earned their professional success at their expense; when, all of a sudden, people begin to see how “white” they really are, and how “black” or “coloured”you are; how here they are and how there you are. It is a burden so heavy because of its invisibility; a curse so difficult to cure because it thrives in a state of unimaginable denial. And herein lies a truly tragic irony: a President so bent on the war against “radical Islamic terrorism” is foisting on the US and the world a psychological/existential terror unknown in America since the time of George Wallace and his Jim Crow”Segregation forever” proclamations.Like that boy who curls up and cringes upon seeing his President’s face on television, millions of people in the United States and around the world are seized by nothing short of “shock and awe” at Trumpism and its aggressively divisive ideology.
Season of omens. Cruelty trumps Compassion. The value of Charity cascades to the bottom of the chart of human virtues. Kindness is out of fashion. Dreaded, discredited gangs of the past formerly condemned to the hades of darkness have romped back to prominent visibility: the Ku Klux Klan, those agents of death and terror, now feel free to roam the streets, without the cover of night, without their masks. And what’s more, they are now seen as a club of role models for the young. Not long ago, the internet was abuzz with the photo of five Iowa high school students wearing KKK hoods, burning a cross, while one of them is holding a Confederate flag, and another a rifle. Some weeks later, the internet also carried the video of five white Utah teen cheerleaders giggling and shouting “fucking niggers”. A few weeks later, an 8-year old biracial boy nearly died after a group of white teens decided to hang him from a tree with a rope, classic Jim Crow lynch style. No one could have narrated the story more compellingly than the victim’s grandmother:
According to the victim’s grandmother Lorrie Slattery, he was playing with a group of children and teens when they began to taunt him with racist epithets and throw sticks and rocks at him.
Someone stood on a picnic table and the group wrapped a rope from a nearby tire swing around the boy’s throat, then kicked him off the table.
The victim swung back and forth three times before he was able to free himself. None of the teens came to his aid. (LOVEBSCOTT.COM, Sept. 10, 2017).
A day after Mr. Trump’s election victory in November 2016, a group of triumphalist white high students in California gathered on one side of the field shouting “Build the wall, build the wall” to the chagrin of their mostly Hispanic colleagues. This and similar instances of blatant racism among teenagers constitute frightening cases of negative socialization for the so-called leaders of tomorrow on whose shoulders will one day fall the responsibilities of building bridges of international understanding and cooperation in a world free of self-created distances and walls of hate and severance. Terrible omen that they are being infected so early with the virus of casual cruelty and bigotry.Even more terribly ominous that many Americans are not frightened at the implications of these developments.
All these incidents are, without doubt, closely related to the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a coalition of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, ultra-nationalists, and other agents of hate and severance took to the streets at night, holding high their Tiki torches, displaying the swastika like a joyously triumphal emblem, sawing the air with energetic Nazi salutes, polluting the night with slogans such as”Blood and Soil”; “We Shall Not Be Replaced; We Shall Not Be Replaced by Jews”, “White Lives Matter” and other dangerous obscenities. A large group of counter-racists challenged the march. A white supremacist rammed his speeding car into the counter-demonstrators, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer, a conscientious Human Rights advocate/ protester, and injuring about 19 others. This was Trumpism in action; and in an act of disingenuous equivalency, the President of the United States condemned the violence on “both sides”, thus equating the malignant racism of the white supremacists with the humanitarian counter-action of the anti-racist protesters.
But Mr. Trump’s attempt at statesmanship collapsed under the weight of its own duplicity. He succeeded in deceiving no one as to where his heart and sympathy really lay. The reign of terror was here again. The self-proclaimed warrior against foreign terrorism has signaled his blessing forits home-grown variety.The American media always trace Mr. Trump’s destructively divisive words and actions to his eagerness to appease the political base whose fanatical loyalty and ferocious passion ensured his astonishing rise to power and his eventual capture of the White House. But to me, his policy looks very much like a cynical appeal, even exploitation, of the baseness of that much touted “base”.
The horrible fact is that even if Mr. Trump ends up building his “beautiful wall”,thereby degrading the world’s most diverse, most vibrant, and most productive country into a walled-in enclave, he will be absolutely unable to control the consequences of his action. Already, Trumpism is beginning to spread like a foul wind, lending retroactive justification and legitimacy to Brexit, bolstering the policies and planks of rabid ultra-nationalists in other parts of the world with its selfishness and bigotry. Elections in many European countries in the past two years have provided a clear demonstration of this fact: the ultra-nationalist parties did worrisomely well in Holland, France, and Germany. And many other countries are likely to follow. So, though Mr. Trump’s American wall may be physical, the ones being contemplated and canvased in other countries may be invisible, though no less insidious in their ideological ramifications.
* * *
Of Nationalism and Jingoism
Seasons of omen. The tragic pitfalls of patria mori (to die for fatherland), especially when that dying is done in the fight for a wrong cause; when that dying is done so that evil can live. The true nationalist says “I praise my country when she is right, I criticize her when she is wrong”; the jingoist declares “My country right or wrong, especially when she is wrong”. True nationalism asks questions, probes all declarations, carries out a rational, intelligent interrogation of the idea of patriotism itself, insists on equity for all sides. Jingoism hardly asks questions because it dreads receiving the tough answers; surface player, it is incapable of the diversity of the deep; narrow-tracker,it hardly veers beyond the circumscription of the Self; mean and myopic it hardly sees above the parapet of its pigmy aspirations. Pseudo-nationalism gauges love of country by‘visible’ symbols such as the national flag, the national anthem and where and how to stand during its rendering, deification of national heroes, veneration of public statues, and suchlike fetishizations carried out most times with hypocritical frenzy. Genuine nationalism digs beneath the surface, probes the un-seeable soul of the nation, interrogates its maxims, examines the interplay between its principles and its practices, its code and its conscience, the insidious ways national pledges degenerate into national platitudes.The jingoist boasts “I am going to war”. Asked “what for”, and he answers “I will think about that later”.
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