On the lessons Joseph Goebbels taught us: The Right Wing, The Big Lie, and the American Spectator’s latest on the Sherrod Case…
(In passing: many thanks to all who came by this blog over the last couple of days. Come on back, y’ hear)
Jeremy Lord has received a lot of attention for his post at the American Spectator in which he attempts to set the record straight about Shirley Sherrod and her family’s history with the horror of race-based murder. (I learned of it first at TPM, via Yglesias, then at Balloon Juice, and then started writing this; I’m sure that the story is all over the blogoverse by now.)
Here, I want to add just one thought about what a little historical resonance may tell us about the character and more importantly the aims of elements of the American right.
But first, the context:
Lord titles his piece “Sherrod Story False.”
Why does he say that of Shirley Sherrod’s telling of the death of her relative Bobby Hall?
Not because Hall wasn’t murdered. Not because the murder did not take place while he was under arrest. Not that he wasn’t killed by the three law enforcement officers in whose power he lay.
The facts are not in dispute — not even by Lord, who yet calls Sherrod’s account of them false. The Supreme Court decision in the case summarized the acknowledge sequence of events:
Robert Hall, then about 30 years old, was in his home late on the night of January 29-30, 1943. Three local law enforcement officers — Sherriff Claude Screws of Baker County, Georgia, one of his special deputies and a police officer came to his house to arrest him for the alleged theft of a tire.
The officers handcuffed Hall, and put him in a car. They drove to the local courthouse, and then…well here is Justice Douglas’s account of what happened next:
As Hall alighted from the car at the courthouse square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground, they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor, dying. An ambulance was called, and Hall was removed to a hospital, where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall, and had threatened to “get” him.
No one disputes this telling of the events. Lord doesn’t. He details them in his post. (No linky because I don’t give traffic to such wretched stuff. If you want to read it in all it’s gory detail, it’s easy enough to find.)
So why does he write this:
Plain as day, Ms. Sherrod says that Bobby Hall, a Sherrod relative, was lynched. As she puts it, describing the actions of the 1940s-era Sheriff Claude Screws: “Claude Screws lynched a black man.”
This is not true. It did not happen.”
Again: Lord acknowledges the murder, but still says that Sherrod lied when she said this:
Claude Screws lynched a black man. And this was at the beginning of the 40s. And the strange thing back then was an all-white federal jury convicted him not of murder but of depriving Bobby Hall — and I should say that Bobby Hall was a relative — depriving him of his civil rights..
And where is this lie?
Well, Lord writes, it’s here:
…the Supreme Court of the United States, with the basic facts of the case agreed to by all nine Justices in Screws vs. the U.S. Government, says not one word about Bobby Hall being lynched. Why? Because it never happened.
To Lord, being beaten to death by law enforcement while in custody and restrained is not a lynching.
And with that, Lord contemns Sherrod:
It’s also possible that she knew the truth and chose to embellish it, changing a brutal and fatal beating to a lynching. Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack — and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday — a very long time — of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal “anti-black jack” or “anti-fisticuffs” laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add “glamour” to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?
I wanted to quote that at length so that I could not be accused of selective editing. There are no ellipses there. It’s what Lord wrote, the full statement of his thesis. Read it, and, I think, weep for an America so clearly unable yet to get its own history.
This is what Lord says: Hall wasn’t taken to the nearest tree, bound by a noose around his neck, and hauled up to dangle from the nearest convenient branch. And so he wasn’t lynched, and Sherrod lied. To claim that any other race-terror murder, any other gathering in the night, ignored, abetted, or perpetrated by white law enforcement is a lynching is to play the race card, to claim extraordinary suffering where only ordinary misery exists.
There are only two problems with this…I don’t really know what to call it actually? Argument?–no. Analysis?–not hardly. Rhetorical vomit? Bile? Execrescence?…take your pick. They are are complete moral bankruptcy…and the fact that as a matter of law, Lord is simply wrong.
The moral void is I think too obvious to belabor.
So let Lord wallow in his own emptiness; the fact is that he is wrong in his attempt to draw a distinction in law.
Here is how the South Carolina Criminal Code defines the crime in a representative example of state anti-lynching provisions:
The Elements of the Crime:
1. That a person’s death resulted from the violence inflicted upon him by a mob and
2. That the accused was a member of that mob
(A mob is defined as “an assemblage of two or more persons, without color of law, gathered togethre for the premediatid purpose of commiting violence upon another.”
Strangely, I see no mention of hanging, of trees, of strange fruit in here (nor in Title 18, sec. 241 of the US code, which addresses lynching from a civil rights law angle), just as they somehow fail to specify tire irons or chains, or fire or whatever. Extrajudicial killings by a mob are lynchings. That’s it. The particular means by which any given victim is done to death is irrelevant: it is the mob and the murder that defines the crime.
Lord may or may not actually believe what he wrote. If he does he is, as indicated above, a moral imbecile. If he doesn’t, he’s worse.
In either case, this is an example of the kind of rhetorical deceit that would have made the patron saint of political thuggery-by-deception proud. Joseph Goebbels famously said “Propaganda has nothing to do with the truth.”
By this measure, of course, Lord’s post is a triumph. It takes someone already the victim of an artful and astonishingly effective hatchet job, pursues one of the most awful incidents in her family history, and tells the world that her accurate account of her relative’s murder is false — and disqualifies her from public regard. Slick, evil, and just what Dr. Joe would have recognized as the political manipulator’s stock in trade.
I’m not trying to Godwinize myself here. Rather I want to draw one thread out of this admittedly loaded comparison.
At no time up to the end of 1933 did the Nazi party command a majority allegiance within the German electorate. They did, however, create a powerful climate of opinion in which their recognizably crazy and fringe politics came to be seen as reasonable and a plausible element in national governance.
At no time did the old right elite among the German political classes intend to deliver real or lasting power to the Hitler and his crew. Notoriously, the failed former German Chancellor Fritz von Papen, after persuading President Hindenburg to invite Hitler to lead a coalition government in which von Papen would serve as Vice Chancellor, crowed “We’ve captured him!”
As we know, it didn’t quite work out that way.
History does not repeat itself precisely, of course (though the famous tragedy-farce sequence seems to pop up from time to time).
But it seems to me to be incredibly dangerous to try to climb back into power on the backs of narratives known to be false. This is exactly what the leaders of the GOP are doing now, I think, and I want to speak directly to them, and their useful idiots like Lord — be careful what you wish for.
Such attempts never turn out well, and for those who seem to think that there might be advantage to be gained from a “by-any-means-necessary” approach to political combat (perhaps among them, that former Reaganaut, Lord) it might be worth remembering this. In the case of Germany in the 30s, much wishful thinking turned out very badly indeed not just for the obvious victims of Nazi violence — but for most Germans, including those of von Papen’s class and circle.
Images: James Joseph Jacques Tissot, “Jesus Wept,” before 1894.
“Mobbing the Tories,” US War of Independence era cartoon.