From the anti-Vietnam war movement to Black Lives Matter – the recycled myth of the badly-behaved protesters

Since the anti-Vietnam war protests, including the civil rights movement, right down to today’s Black Lives Matter rallies, there has been a common theme advocated by the conservative Right – the disrespectful, badly behaved protester. The latter stereotype has been deployed not only to counter the protest movements, but to delegitimise the ideas and actions of the protesters, reinforce a conservative reaction, and distract popular outrage into unnecessary channels.

Let’s examine all of this more closely.

Civil rights protesters, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, faced the lawless violence of the police and state authorities. African Americans breaking the segregation laws were met not with polite requests to cease and desist, but with unrestrained racist violence by police, often accompanied by white vigilantes – the latter normally under the protection of the authorities. Dr King was always a nonviolent protester – and he was shot dead.

Racist militia groups, motivated by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, committed pogroms and atrocities against the black American community. They were the auxiliary arm of the US authorities as they tried to clamp down civil rights protesters. Ismail Muhammad, writing in The New Republic, explains that:

The Civil Rights movement made outright, avowed beliefs in white supremacy socially unacceptable. But racist mob violence has a long and robust history in the U.S., both before the 1960s and after. It forms a part of America’s political sediment, a foundation upon which our contemporary politics are built. 

The civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s were dismissed by their opponents as paid dupes of a shadowy (sometimes Communist) presence – the Jews. The claim that Jews – in the shape of a vast, financially powerful, veiled malevolence – was circulated by white nationalist and racist organisations to discredit the real issues of racism and segregation raised by the civil rights protesters.

While American Jews participated strongly in civil rights actions, the falsehood that Jews manipulated or controlled the protest movement serves to undermine the agency of black Americans to organise themselves around important sociopolitical issues.

Portraying the African Americans as naive pawns of a vast Jewish conspiracy has its echoes today. The claim that billionaire George Soros is funding today’s Black Lives Matter protesters is a recycled, slanderously false rendition of the old ‘Jewish conspiracy’ trope. Soros, of Jewish origin, has long been a target of conspiracist falsehoods promoted by extreme right wing and racist organisations.

Today’s BLM protests are dismissed by the conservative punditocracy as a cunning manipulated tactic of the (usually foreign) Jewish billionaire. Soros has been demonised as a destabilising and malign influence, responsible for ‘paying protesters’ on multiple occasions. Attacking Soros as an underhanded influencer of the malignant kind is the perfect gateway to anti-Semitic vitriol. The Soros-funded protester is the latest incarnation of the historic anti-Semitic shadow – the international Jew.

US President Donald Trump has done his level-best to attack BLM as a product of ‘dark forces’ and professional agitators, but he is hardly alone, and certainly not the first to do so. Blaming social unrest on outsiders, or regarding them as the dupes of malevolent and underhanded figures, has a long anti-Semitic pedigree. Instead of having a national conversation about the difficult economic and political issues of our times, we are taken down a well-worn path of bigotry.

The myth of the disrespectful protester gained new currency in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war. Defeated by the Vietnamese, the US authorities were looking for reasons to explain their defeat. From the 1980s, and in particular from the 1991 Gulf War, the story of the disrespected Vietnam veteran began circulating as a conservative response to the mass social movements of the 60s and 70s.

One of the most famous claims from the anti-Vietnam war era is the myth of the ‘spitting protester‘. Driven by disrespect, throngs of hippie-antiwar activists allegedly gathered at airports to confront returning Vietnam veterans with gobs of saliva-spit and insults of ‘baby killers’. The pathos of these stories is undeniable – but there is not a single piece of corroborating evidence to verify these stories.

Jerry Lembkce, a Vietnam veteran and sociology professor, undertook an extensive investigation into these stories of badly behaved, disrespectful antiwar protesters and found no evidence that back up the claims. However, the mythology of the war-at-home-after-the-war Vietnam veteran has achieved a cultural norm status. In fact, the antiwar protests included, among others, numerous Vietnam veterans.

Returning soldiers were welcomed by antiwar groups, and participated in organising activities. Vietnam veterans formed their own antiwar associations as well. However, none of this stopped Hollywood from churning out movies depicting the badly mistreated veteran, where patriotism became synonymous with pro-war. This claim gained national prominence in the ensuing years.

Today, cynical concerns about COVID-19 clusters are being perversely used to deny anti-racism protests – even though not a single COVID-19 case has been traced to any BLM or anti-racism rallies. The concerns for a potential surge in coronavirus cases were not used to stop the reopening of businesses, workplaces, shopping centres and other areas of close social contact.

Before we deploy the tired old cliche of badly behaved (or paid) protesters, let’s actually have a discussion about the economic and racial disparities that generate social upheaval.

When Hindu supremacy meets white nationalism – the intersection of transnational bigotry

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has built up a solid friendship with US President Donald Trump since the latter took office. It may seem strange that a South Asian head of state would find common ground with an avowed white supremacist.

Scratch beneath the surface, and we will find a political correspondence based on mutually-reinforcing bigotry; white nationalism on Trump’s part, and ultranationalist Hindu supremacism from Modi. In fact, the ideology advocated by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is directly based on its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The latter is longest continuously-existing fascist movement in the world, and seeks to establish India as Hindutva, a Hindu supremacist state excluding ethnic minorities.

Narendra Modi is a longtime activist and missionary for the fascistic RSS. The latter, founded in 1925, is the wellspring of Hindu nationalist ideology. Its acolytes promote an exclusionary and Hindu communalist vision of India – a vision that Modi and the BJP have faithfully implemented since coming to power in 2014. The RSS, the National Volunteer Organisation, does not directly participate in party politics. However, its fanatical devotees have numerous offspring groups which control the streets and levers of power, such as the ruling BJP.

The RSS and its affiliates throughout society have organised mass pogroms and violence against India’s minority communities. In the name of purging India of non-Hindu elements, the RSS militants have carried out attacks, demolished mosques and imposed a strictly conservative Hindu nationalist political agenda. Its version of history regards the Muslim community, and Islam in general, to be a threat to the Hindutva state. Islamophobia is a common, uniting feature of the Indian and American far right.

One of the main leaders and ideologues of the RSS was Veer Savarkar, an anti colonial activist and scholar. Writing in his seminal 1923 text, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu, Savarkar elaborated a strictly religious foundation and boundary for the Indian state. Hinduism, he claimed, would be the sole organising principle of the entire society. Viewing Islam and Christianity as ‘foreign religions’, he expressed his admiration for Mussolini’s fascist regime. In the 1930s, Savarkar voiced his support for Hitler and the Nazi party.

Savarkar, and RSS partisans today, express their open admiration for Zionism and the colonial policies of the Israeli settler state. In the 1920s and 30s, Savarkar and his co-thinkers, were influenced by the Zionist model of building an exclusionary ethnonationalist state, reflected in the concept of muscular Hindutva. Current Indian PM Modi has built up a working alliance with the Israeli government of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

There was a time when independent India denounced Zionism as an exclusionary ideology and a form of racism. That is no longer the case with PM Modi and his Hindutva ideology. Indeed, the BJP government is using the Zionist example as a template for its own actions.

When the UN in 1947, decided to partition Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, Savarkar was particularly disappointed. Since the 1920s, the RSS has voiced its support for the settler-colonial philosophy of Zionism. Savarkar stated that the realisation of the Zionist project would gladden him as much as the Jewish settlers. Supporting an ethnonationalist Jewish state did not stop Savarkar from admiring Nazi Germany. He elaborated the view that India’s Muslims should be treated in the same way that Hitler treated Germany’s Jewish communities.

Hindutva is not only a religious exclusionary concept, but easily crosses over into a racialist one as well. The white nationalists in the United States want to construct a whites-only racially unified state – a goal that finds parallels in the Hindutva project in India. The Nazi party did not only borrow the hooked cross – the swastika – from Hindu India.

The pseudoscientific notion of an Aryan super-race of a long-lost ancient civilisation is not Germanic in origin, but derives from Hindu-Vedic mythology. Recovering the ancient glories of a mythic ‘great race’ motivates not only the Hindu nationalist community, but also the pan-Germanic anti-Semitism which fed into Nazi ideology.

The Sanskrit civilisation of early India, called Indo-European or Aryan, was transformed into a political project by 19th century pan-German nationalists. In the pseudo archaeological imagination of European white supremacy, Aryan was transmogrified into ‘whiteness’, and thus began a crisscrossing of racist pseudohistory.

The admiration for, and appropriation of, Hindu-Vedic mythology, continued with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Himmler and Nazi leaders read the Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita, respected the hierarchical structure of the Indian caste system, and regarded themselves as reviving the racial purity of the original Aryan civilisation.

Himmler, as head of the SS, viewed his organisation as a modern application of the Kshatriyakaste, the old warrior caste from the Hindu-Vedic social structure. Racial killings, for the Nazi party, were not crimes, but service for the revival of an Aryan new order based on a mythical glorious past. Imperial nostalgia based on pseudoarchaeology makes for a toxic combination.

While Trump and American white nationalists deserve vocal condemnation, we can not afford to ignore the rise of religious ethnonationalist supremacy closer to home. The rise of Hindutva, in the form of the governing party of India, the BJP, is its own form of toxic bigotry. The fight against the far right must necessarily have a global perspective.

The Russian bounties fabrication is intended to keep the Afghanistan war going

In late June this year, the New York Times published a sensational exposé; Russian military intelligence, the GRU, paid bounties to Taliban guerrillas so the latter would kill American troops in Afghanistan. This startling revelation began a spiralling process of questioning and counter accusations between the US military and the various intelligence services.

After two weeks, the NY Times published a crucial admission: there is no factual basis for this allegation. Why was this uncorroborated claim published without any critical examination or skepticism, which created a media frenzy and public outrage? Why was no evidence for this claim produced, or any witnesses brought forward, in any of the articles published by the mainstream media?

Perhaps there is a level of incompetence in the corporate media. That explanation, while plausible, is unconvincing. Why? Back in November 2019, the NY Times was fully aware of the systematic and unrelenting deception practiced by the US authorities regarding the Afghanistan war. Dubbed the Afghanistan Papers, documents obtained by the Washington Post detail a scandalous pattern of lying on the part of the Pentagon and associated American authorities.

The US government, worried about the stalemated nature of its Afghan invasion, routinely misrepresented the situation on the ground, waging a concerted misinformation campaign spanning the 18-year (soon to be 19-year) US invasion of that nation. Framing the conflict as one of ‘progress’, the American government deliberately misled the public regarding the ongoing suffering and misery inflicted on the Afghan people.

The US authorities consciously lied about the Afghanistan war, denying that ground was being lost to the Taliban. The Afghan government, propped up by force of American arms, is a near-perfect example of a kleptocracy, impelled by corruption and avarice. Millions of US dollars, earmarked for the purported development of the nation, has disappeared into the pockets of Afghan ministers and officials.

The US war on Afghanistan, launched in 2001 on the purported rationale of responding to the 9/11 terrorist attack, has not brought the lofty ideals of democratic government or human rights to that nation. Extensive investigations by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has revealed that atrocities and war crimes have been perpetrated by the elite Australian SAS soldiers.

Afghan civilians have been murdered with impunity by the SAS troops, and a culture of coverup has allowed the perpetrators of such crimes to continue operating without any consequences or accountability. Major-General Adam Findlay, special forces commander, admitted that Australian troops committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Australian military forces are operating as allies of the United States.

Human Rights Watch has documented the atrocities and abuses by Afghan soldiers, backed by CIA-supported death squads, killing civilians under the guise of conducting the so-called war on terror. Counterinsurgency is a broad concept, and under that term, CIA-backed paramilitaries working for the Kabul government have committed numerous mass killings. These are not isolated or atypical events, but rather part of a systematic campaign to terrorise the civilian population.

It would be delusional to think that American intervention in Afghanistan only began in 2001 with the commencement of the ostensible and misnamed ‘war on terror’. The United States, under successive administrations, has been intervening in Afghanistan since the late 1970s, when the Democrat President Jimmy Carter, sponsored various Islamist parties and militias to wage a mujahideen anti-Communist insurgency against the socialist regime in Kabul.

Paying Islamist guerrillas to fight in Afghanistan, the United States intended to restore the old landlord class, wealthy mullahs and reverse the social gains of the Kabul socialist regime. After repeated requests, Moscow decided to intervene, and thus began the long-running Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Withdrawing in 1989, the Soviets were implementing their part in an agreement with the US to de-escalate the conflict.

The US reneged on the arrangement, and continued supplying and paying the numerous Islamist militias to fight the Kabul regime. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, a solid ally of the United States, strongly supported the Afghan Islamist forces throughout the 1980s. In the 1990s, the various mujahideen factions, having occupied Kabul, then turned on each other, reducing the country to ruins. The Taliban emerged as a ‘purer’, untainted Islamist militia, and took control in 1996.

The purpose of revisiting this relevant historical background is not to elicit reactions of boredom. It is to understand that manufactured outrage about the killing of ‘our troops’ is poisonous venom in the mainstream media. The conduct of the American authorities reeks of hypocrisy. The United States has a long and disturbing history of covertly sponsoring and supporting extremist Islamist groups, using them as a counterweight to secular, socialist and nationalist forces in the Middle East.

The Russian bounties story is yet another attempt to foment pro-war sentiment among the American population, perversely disguised as ‘concern’ for the lives and wellbeing of American soldiers. Rather than a cynical exercise in fabricating ‘outrage’ about the conduct of others, it would be more productive to rethink the trillion-dollar cost of the ‘war on terror’, the latter being the origin rationale for the Afghanistan ordeal.

How many schools, hospitals, medical equipment, public infrastructure could have been built with the trillions of dollars spent on the global war on terror? Our outrage should fuel condemnation of US imperial wars, and the scandalous conduct of that nation’s institutions.

We see history more clearly after tearing down statues of racist colonisers

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, criticised the Black Lives Matter (BLM), stating we should not import their issues and causes into the Australian context. Perhaps he is unaware of modern history, but white nationalism is a global ideology, and its advocates derive supporters and inspiration from its application across the globe.

The most successful exporter of white nationalist ideology, and the most efficient practitioner of that ideology, was the capitalist British empire. Employing ruthless means, the British ruling class expanded its operating frontiers, not only to increase its economic wealth. White supremacy was the ideological glue that cemented connections between the empire’s colonies and English centre. The empire was held together by overwhelming coercion, racism and economic exploitation of its nonwhite peoples.

One of the major results of exporting English imperial capitalism was the eventual emergence of the nation of Australia. Founded on the dispossession of the indigenous nations, the newly constructed Australian capitalist class used, among other methods, slave labour to enrich itself – blackbirding, as it is known in Australia. The kidnapping and forcible exploitation of Melanesian labourers on the cotton fields and pearling industries of the new nation have been amply documented.

What is not so well-known is the warm reception granted by Australia to a class of fleeing merchants from another colonial-settler nation – slave owners and traders from Louisiana, in the United States. As the American civil war began, the viability of continued cotton plantations – resting as they did on slave labour – was being undermined. The plantation owners who fled that state found an opportunity for a fresh start, in Queensland, Australia.

Louisiana planters, finding their cotton production grinding to a halt, found a receptive commercial environment in Queensland. Given a business-friendly economic setup, they continued their use of slave labourers, albeit from a different source – the Pacific Islands. Queensland became the replacement cotton industry for those slave owners and traders whose businesses were disrupted in the United States. It is indicative that the Queensland colony’s authorities – ultimately responsible to Britain – were quite comfortable with providing asylum to their fellow white supremacists from the northern hemisphere.

When protesters pull down statues of Columbus in the US, or slave traders like Edward Colston in Britain, the reflexive cry of ‘just get over it’ can be heard in the shrill conservative punditocracy. This claim is intended to dampen any debate about our collective history, and provide a rationale for continued historical amnesia regarding the black presence in white majoritarian nations. Indeed, such a cry undermines an extensive examination of how our societies became white majority states in the first place.

In this context, it is instructive to note that the white nationalist view of history extends beyond national boundaries, and engages in historical revisionism of its own. Dylann Roof, the white nationalist American who gunned down several African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, was wearing the flag of the long-dead white supremacist state of Rhodesia on his person, among other racist symbols. Rhodesia-nostalgia has become a bedrock of white nationalist propaganda.

As John Ismay, writing in The New York Times, explains it:

Nostalgia for Rhodesia has since grown into a subtle and profitable form of racist messaging, with its own line of terminology, hashtags and merchandise, peddled to military-history fans and firearms enthusiasts by a stew of far-right provocateurs.

Reclaiming the long-gone white supremacist nationalism of Rhodesia has long and disturbing echoes. In fact, the decision by the-then Rhodesian government to declare independence was based precisely on a tribalist refusal to accede to majority-rule in the former British colony. American (and Australian) white nationalism extends its cross-border solidarity to the historic whites-only statelet, to indicate their desire to configure their own societies on the same organising principle as that of Rhodesia.

The appeal to Rhodesia nostalgia is not a mere hobby-like exercise in historical appreciation. It plays the same, albeit updated role, that the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the slave-owning Confederacy plays within the circles of white nationalist retroactive victimhood. Preying upon the real socioeconomic anxieties of poor white workers, Rhodesia nostalgia channels those social concerns into an anti-immigrant direction, mythologising a supposedly lost ‘golden age’ of a white exclusionary tribalism.

While current US President Donald Trump has recycled old white nationalist tropes in his current capacity, it would be delusional to think that white nationalism began with him. In the last stages of World War 2, as the regime faced certain defeat in 1945, the United States provided a secretive yet crucial refuge for white supremacists fleeing Europe. Operation Paperclip was a secret American initiative to recruit Nazi scientists, engineers and technical experts, and seamlessly assimilate them into the burgeoning US military-industrial complex.

The Soviets also nabbed German scientists, in 1946, as well. This measure is routinely interpreted as evidence of an ideological correspondence between two ‘totalitarianisms’. Let us for the moment accept that rationale. What excuse does the United States have for initiating such a programme? I think there is a little-examined yet striking ideological continuity between the ostensibly democratic United States and Nazi Germany – mutual dedication to white supremacy.

Prior to World War 2, when Nazi party ideologues and leaders were looking for a successful example of a racially-stratified society, they found inspiration and legally-significant examples to emulate in the United States. The goal of a whites-only homeland found common currency on both sides of the Atlantic. Adolf Hitler’s opposition to race-mixing was well within mainstream thinking about race in the United States.

Tearing down statues of racist conquistadors, rather than erasing history, provides a necessary starting-point for illuminating the darkest corners of imperial colonisation. We would do well to consider whom we uphold as venerable figures for our children.