In this unusual political year, there has been an effort to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. This is the 12th in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
As the prospects for communism disappeared, a group of communist leaders in Yugoslavia decided on a new strategy for holding on to power: Ethnic nationalism. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country, Serb leaders relentlessly hammered on the theme of Serb victimization, the danger and bad intentions of “the others” and the rightful place of Serbs at the top of the country’s ethno-religious hierarchy.
These leaders used their control of state media to deliver these messages of mistrust and menace. Even with this quasi-media monopoly, it took more than five years to bring the level of animus to the breaking point. Over the next decade, Yugoslavia was destroyed, 130,000 people were killed, many more displaced, and genocide appeared in Europe for the first time since World War II.
The Serb leaders, who ended up in the dock for war crimes and genocide, could not have foreseen where their ambitions would lead. They were no better at predicting the future than anyone else. If, at the outset, they had looked around, they might have seen that they were playing with fire. But hubris and the lure of power proved to be too much.
It is not possible to understand American politics and society in our times if you do not understand Fox News. And, to understand Fox News, you must watch and understand Sean Hannity. Hannity is the clearest and most consistent voice of the white nationalism and “otherization” that now dominate our government and our politics.
The last United States ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman, repeatedly made the point that what President Clinton referred to as “ancient hatreds” as a reason to avoid U.S. intervention, took years to crank up in a country with the world’s highest rate of intermarriage across groups.
But, to Zimmerman’s point, what is the difference between control of national media and a large population that gets all of its information from a single source, Fox News, a source that repeatedly tells them that the rest of “the media” is lying and corrupt?
Hannity is in the line of succession of the racial radicals of the early 20th century, the racists and anti-Semites of the Great Depression and the voices of white backlash of the post-civil rights era. Hannity’s career took off when he inherited his audience from the virulent racist Bob Grant who called black people savages and hoped that they would get AIDS.
Like Grant, Hannity relentlessly traffics in scapegoating and white victimization. He, along with his Fox News colleagues, has been a major voice in the process of “otherizing” American society. In Hannity’s world, and that of his guests and his audience, “the American people” are invariably – and exclusively – white, right-wing, Christian and mostly don’t live in cities.
Everyone else is “the others,” all of whom are designated scapegoats. Until the recent anti-Muslim crusade, the biggest target was black people, relentlessly reflecting his ongoing inheritance from the Klan-connected Bob Grant. And with the dismissal of any black grievance comes a near worship of the police and the use of force. Within this context, Black Lives Matter becomes a hate group, the black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan.
Among the other “others” are liberals, immigrants, LGBT people and the poor. Anti-Semitism is the “ism” that cannot be spoken, but lurks just beneath the surface, masked by the worship of all things Israeli, especially as Israel moves to the far-right.
There are two other Hannity themes that hark back to the racial radicals of the early 20th century. The first is the denial of racism. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Hannity and his fans totally reject that they have any racial prejudice, immediately accusing the person making the statement of themselves being the racist – against white people – and of being a slave to political correctness.
These people were all ridiculous, idiotic, absurd. The biggest sin that anyone can commit is to imply that white people have deficiencies.
The second early 20th century theme is the need for some “Good Negroes” to be on television. These range from television regulars to fanatics like Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee. These allow him to say, See, even the blacks agree with me.
With President Obama, Hannity reached his peak. Again, denying any prejudice, Hannity spent eight years implying or stating that Obama, who was clearly black, was also a Muslim. He jumped on the birther issue at an early stage. He said that “Obama has an affinity for, an unwillingness to recognize the problems, the issues of Islamic faith, especially the practice of Sharia.”
By implying that President Obama was a Muslim, Hannity could get two for the price of one. Sammy Davis Jr., who was black and Jewish, often said that the bigots would chase him shouting, “Get him, he’s both of them.” After the 2016 election, Hannity offered to pay for a charter flight to take Obama back to Kenya, saying, “I have one stipulation. You can’t come back.”
It is Black History Month, not Black Future Month, since we don’t know what the future holds. And, in our current circumstances, predicting even the next month is an exercise in foolishness. What we do know, looking back, is that ethnic chauvinism, scapegoating and otherization leads to unhappy outcomes. And that history has not been kind to the Sean Hannitys of the past. There are not many monuments to the anti-Semitic radio priest Father Coughlin, or Tokyo Rose for that matter.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.