From my History in Politics series:
History, as we know, creates many parallels. A favorite saying of people who promote the teaching of history is that “Those who ignore history are forced to repeat it.” Illustrations of this phenomenon are too numerous to quote in a single blog. Rather, I intend to focus on a single situation of the early 20th century, occurring in another country, which may offer lessons for today’s United States.
That country is France –the France that existed between the end of World War I and its collapse and surrender to the German Nazis and their fascistic French allies in 1940 – a dire situation that lasted until the Liberation in 1944.
The parallel with today in the U.S. involves President Barack Obama and the prominent French leader of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Leon Blum.
So how do these two mesh? One might answer that it is through the particular shock their ascent to political power aroused in certain circles within their populations. Both were considered members of an inferior race – Blum because he was a Jew and Obama because under American mores he was ipso-facto a Negro, despite being half white.
It was unthinkable to right wing conservatives in France that Blum would head up a government as Prime Minister. Equally, although a matter of pride in many quarters of the United States, it became an instant matter of outrage and silent fury among America’s silent racists for the Presidency to go to – in their eyes – an uppity black man.
The French were more candid about their intolerance. The extreme right wing there, carrying on the tradition of the Dreyfus Affair, were already banding into quasi-fascist groups. Charles Maurras, the fuhrer for one of these organizations called L’Action Francaise, said of Blum: “There is a man who should be shot, but in the back.” Another such bigot labeled Blum “A Palestinian mare” and suggested he be sent to a prison camp in Madagascar.
A Royalist deputy during a session of the Chambre des Deputes where Blum presided cried out: “There’s room only for Frenchmen here.” Compare this refusal to recognize Paris-born and raised Blum’s Frenchness with that coterie of rightists in the U.S. who have come to be known as the “Birthers.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, they refuse to accept the fact that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Part of this tactic, of course, is an effort to have him disqualified as President. But it also betokens their fierce determination not to recognize him as a full-fledged fellow citizen since, to them, he will always be the “other.” He is an usurper, in so many words. Due to his having had a Kenyan father, he has been deemed as steeped in a Mau Mau terrorist frame of mind, although never having set foot in Kenya nor having had much to do with his father.
Then, there has been the lie spread that he is secretly a Moslem and that when he lived in Indonesia with his white mother, a native of Kansas, he was educated in a Moslem madrassa, or Islamic religious school, rather than the Catholic institution he actually attended. Blum, too, faced the same sort of distortions, such as that he was an “Asiatic” of East European ancestry. The myth was even published that he was born Leon Karfunkelstein in Vidine, Bulgaria. At least these French Birthers invented a foreign birthplace for him, something Donald Trump and his ilk, after poo-poohing Obama’s official Hawaiian birth certificate, haven’t had the guts to do.
In gauging the violence and hatred directed toward these two men, it is necessary to discuss their politics. Obama has repeatedly been called a “Socialist” by people who haven’t the slightest idea what a Socialist is, except to be used as an epithet to hurl at an enemy. The term has been used deliberately and erroneously on other American politicians, as well, like FDR and Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman and, in this State, Governor Percival Baxter. Leon Blum, conversely, was a Socialist. He was head of the French Socialist Party, whose major foes were the Nazis and Stalin’s Communists in the Soviet Union. Blum, in trying to deal with the economic disaster in France caused by the Depression actually set as his model Franklin Roosevelt’s reform capitalism New Deal. He even referred to his own program as a “French New Deal.”
The French right wing reaction to Blum was far more violent than anything the U.S. has seen against Obama to date. Egged on by Charles Maurras and his declaration that Leon Blum was “anything but French” and should be “shot down,” a crowd of fascists attacked Blum’s car in February 1936, savagely beat him, severing a vein in his neck and causing him to be hospitalized for two weeks. When the Germans invaded in 1940, Blum did not flee the country but was imprisoned and somehow survived the war. A moral to the story here is that the fanaticism of the right wing contributed to the French defeat and German occupation; their sabotaging of the government had totally weakened the country. After the Liberation, many of these traitors and collaborators were jailed and the worst of them executed.
Could the same thing happen in the U.S. today? Could a political program built solely upon the premise of driving Barack Obama from office defeat our nation, itself, as its problems multiply due to the neglect enforced by an opposition party acting on prejudice (both racial and political) and achieving what our greatest enemies want? For example, the Grover Norquist policy of shrinking the U.S. Federal Government small enough “to drown it in a bathtub”, i.e., to reduce it to a state of impotence, that would have Osama bin Laden cheering on such Republicans from his watery grave. There’s enormous danger to the U.S. from these tactics of scheming to bring the government to a screeching halt and ushering in an era of disorder and chaos.
History has shown us what happened to France. If we pay attention and take action while there’s still time, we need not let history repeat itself.