In last Thursday’s post, I started looking at “Good Trouble, Bad Flags” in Nate Powell’s Save It For Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest. Specifically, I looked at the ways that Powell discusses the severing of history and the erasure of history that occurs throughout our collective consciousness. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at a few more moments in “Good Trouble, Bad Flags,” notably his discussions of our memories surrounding World War II and the Nazis and his recollections of driving past a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anniston, Alabama, back in 1983.
When Powell starts watching the 1970s Wonder Woman television with his daughter, he realizes that he needs to talk with her about Nazis and World War II. The first episode focuses on Steve Trevor intercepting a Nazi plane as it flies towards the United States with a bomb. Both planes get destroyed, and he crash lands on Paradise Island. Powell doesn’t detail the episode, but following the page where the two watch the debut, he has a full page detailing various representations of Nazis in popular media during the 1970s and 1980s, when he and I were both growing up and consuming mass media in various forms.
He begins with a section of the computer screen where they watch Wonder Woman. On the screen we see Nazi flags and officers saluting one another with a globe in between them. Powell narrates, “Of, right. Nazis.” From here, he moves into three panels showing depictions of Nazis in mass media, and he narrates the first one by saying, “It’s jarring to’ve seen Nazi imagery in 1970s & 1980s entertainment as an indicator of time, a historical marker against which our grandparents fought (or fled, or were killed by).” Powell’s illustration accompanying the narration shows various images of characters one would find in media from the period.
The next panel shows Arte Johnson as Wolfgang from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a variety show that aired from the late 1960s through early 1970s. Wolfgang was a Nazi solider who didn’t realize the war was over. He would peer out from behind plants and say, “Very interesting.” Here, Powell states, “That collective memory was fresh enough, accepted enough, that Nazi characters could at the time, successfully be written into comedy-and their buffoonish depictions worked to disarm their horrors.” No mention of the Holocaust or other atrocities.
When I see Powell’s panel depicting Johnson, I also think about the Indiana Jones franchise and teh continual use of of Nazis within it. Notably, I see Ronald Lacey’s Major Arnold Toht from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in the panel. My introduction to Nazis, now that I think back to it, came through Indiana Jones. In that series, Nazis are sadistic and violent; however, the atrocities of the Holocaust never get mentioned, at least explicitly. One can read the film as a confrontation Nazism and the atrocities of the Third Reich. My point, though, is that these aspects never arose for me when watching the film. I did not learn about the Holocaust until later, and then even as a cursory event during my schooling.
The final panel depicting media images shows Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe, a television series, comic book, and toy line that I really took part in during my childhood. Again, I did not get the connection between Cobra and Nazism, but it is there. Cobra is a fascist organization hell bent on world domination, and G.I. Joe, an American military force, is there to stop them. Powell narrates, “They were always understood as bad guys–even by most white Americans who supported the effects of segregation in our society.” Here, I think about the fact that Hitler and the Nazis relied heavily on Southern Jim Crow laws during the formulation of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. As James Q. Whitman notes, “America in the early 20th century was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world. . . Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.” Ironically, the Reich found the anti-miscegenation laws too harsh for them. Yet, I did not learn this growing up.
As well, I had no clue about the Nazi presence in America during the period, most notably the German American Bund and their 1939 gathering at Madison Square Garden. This lack of knowledge created within me a clear cut idea of good and bad. The Nazis were bad. Look at what they did. We were good because we defeated them and made the world safe for democracy. It wasn’t so simple. The Nazis took what we did and used it for their own machinations. They had supporters here in the United States. We promoted democracy abroad while subjugating Blacks at home and placing Japanese Americans in internment camps. It has never been clear cut good and bad, and Powell points out that this “cognitive dissonance” is dangerous because it presents a villain for the oppressor to prop up as a worse villain than him or herself.
Powell concludes the page with a horizontal panel of a military parade depicting soldiers returning from battle. Two people at the head of the parade carry a banner that reads “Support your troops” as a throng walk behind them carrying American flags. Powell narrates, “For racist white Americans still in the living memory of World War II, simply having an enemy was of utmost importance–even when they agree with that enemy’s position. Nationalist myth is the core of that belief system.” In order to justify systems of racism, one must find an enemy that truly appears, at least in the eyes of many, as worst than themselves. As well, must must totally deny ever looking critically at oneself in the mirror because that action will inevitably illuminate the similarities between both sides in their oppression, subjugation, and murder of others.
Recall that in 1951 Civil Rights activists such as Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and more sent a petition to the United Nations entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.” With the petition, the authors showed that the United States was violating the the U.N.’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide that they adopted in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. The U.N.’s definition of genocide reads, “Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, or religious group is genocide.” The authors of “We Charge Genocide” began the 200 page petition by writing, “We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”
The petition continues by linking racial oppression and discrimination in the United States directly to the Holocaust and the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The authors state, “The Hitler crimes, of awful magnitude, beginning as they did against the heroic Jewish people, finally drenched the world in blood, and left a record of maimed and tortured bodies and devastated areas such, as
mankind had never seen before. Justice Robert H. Jackson, who now sits upon the United States Supreme Court bench, described this holocaust to the world in the powerful language with which he opened the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders. Every word he voiced against the monstrous Nazi beast applies with equal weight, we believe, to those who are guilty of the crimes herein set forth.”
Lillian Smith understood all of this, the “cognitive dissonance” of whites that they willingly or unwillingly used to deny the genocide happening in their own nation. Writing during the war in “The White Christian and His Conscience,” Smith targets this dissonance, pointing out that when we talk about the atrocities of the Third Reich “[w]e talk about the problem of the Nazis and their racial beliefs and acts of exploitation.” We don’t call their actions the “Jewish Problem.” Yet, in the United States, we use(d) phrases such as the “Negro Problem” which shifted the burden from the oppressor to the oppressed. Smith continues, “But in America we do, as people who are tormented by the conflicts always try to do: we attempt to push conflict outside ourselves, on to another. We study the Negro in order to keep from having to study the white man.” The “cognitive dissonance” works to create an enemy outside of oneself and to hinder the inward inspection one needs to move forward.
Smith points out that racism and oppression have been used to do many things, but their “main use today is to keep the white man from seeing what he is doing to other human beings.” They work to keep the white man from looking inward, and that is why, as she vehemently argues, “nowhere is hatred of the German Nazi worse than in the Deep South.” The need to fight an evil works to create a false absolution that cleanses one of the crimes being committed at home. Powell, Smith, and the authors of “We Pledge Genocide” all point this out in their own ways, and it is something that we all need to remember. Just because we fight an evil system on the other side of the world does not mean that we do not have evil systems at home. That evil system, which murdered over 11 million people during the Holocaust and more in other atrocities continues, as the authors of the petition wrote in 1951, “the institutionalized Negro oppression, written into law, and carried out by police and courts.”
Next post, I’ll finish looking at “Good Trouble, Bad Flags.” Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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