Sunday, 12 October 2008
Incitement to murder
Last week I found myself listening to Billie Holiday on CD. She was singing "Strange Fruit," the song written by Abel Meeropol. It takes on a painful life in Billie Holiday's performance, sung by a woman who knew the daily cruelties of racism from direct experience.
I had to explain what the song was about and did this briefly, without details. The truth of lynchings in the former slave-states of America really is too horrible. Billie Holiday's voice recalls the way lynchings were experienced by the black descendants of slaves. And the photographs tell us how the white members of lynch mobs and their families experienced these occasions.
These days the photos are so upsetting that it takes me a while to ask the important question: who took the photographs and why? When I look at photographs of lynchings (it's hard to look - I flinch and look away after seeing one or two) I can't look at the dangling, disfigured corpses so I start to look at the people standing by.
Usually the white people are aware of the camera. They're posing - looking back at the photographer. Sometimes they are men, putting on a stern appearance. But often the crowds are a mixture of men and women, dressed in their good clothes for the occasion. Sometimes there's a party atmosphere. Often children are present - some quite small.
The pictures were taken as souvenirs, just like the pictures in Abu Ghraib. They were often sent as postcards and kept by the people who received them. That's why the evidence has survived. Looking at the pictures again - just a glimpse - and focussing on the white crowds, I see no evidence of anger or shame.
Watching the American elections from Britain, I'm strongly aware of this history of brutal, violent racism. It's not exclusive to the United States. Britons, with their colonial past, have no cause for smug self-congratulation. Many Britons were, like me, amazed and admiring to discover that the United States had moved so far from its past that a major political party could nominate a black man as a presidential candidate - and were impressed to see that Barack Obama was ahead in the polls. A country overcoming the racism of its past might be an example to the world.
Recent news from the McCain-Palin campaign has therefore come as a shock. At first John McCain's team were polite, aware of the dangers to their opponent and their country. There's a history of assassination in the United States and Barack Obama was given secret service protection early last year - before he'd secured the nomination .
But since the selection of Sarah Palin as vice-president, the Republican campaign has turned nasty.
At first, the selection of Sarah Palin seemed a brilliant move. She looked like a fighter against corruption as well as someone who would bring in the Christian evangelical voters who were suspicious of McCain. I didn't like her politics but I thought she might be honest. I worried about stories of attempted censorship in a public library but the truth was unclear. I thought I'd better give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I heard about her lies - even about Darfur - sickened me. But I assumed it was just politics as usual - and not in my country. While I think Obama would probably be preferable to McCain, I have doubts. I follow his campaign with interest but I'm not an Obama supporter.
Reports of recent Republican rallies are another matter. The stories are raging through the British press. Members of the audience are shouting out "Kill him!" "Terrorist!", "Treason!" and "Off with his head" when McCain, Palin and members of their team attack Barack Obama. No-one has disowned or condemned those comments - John McCain and Sarah Palin's team simply move to the next rally, repeat the same attacks and encourage the same responses. Defenders of the Republican campaign say that these calls come from isolated, unhinged individuals. But it's often isolated and unhinged individuals who become assassins.
From here, the latest Republican campaign speeches are beginning to sound like incitement to murder. And the smiling faces of supporters at Republican rallies - and the cheers that greet every fresh smear and innuendo - are beginning to recall those well-dressed, respectable families who brought their children to attend the lynchings of black youths - and smiled for for the camera.