Shortly after posting my previous week’s article about Donald Trump, fascism, and communal violence, the New York Times published footage of a woman being lynched in Kabul, Afghanistan. The preceding disclaimer did not prepare me for the video’s contents; though I can’t think of anything that would have. It was definitely the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t necessarily recommend the reader watch it. I would recommend it, however, for those who genuinely think that Trump’s followers are in danger of becoming a lynch mob. Watching footage from the events that transpired at the Trump rally alongside footage of an actual lynch mob can only help educate those with no frame of reference for communal violence.
People’s insistence that a return to lynching in America is imminent reminds me of a dialog in Richard Wright’s Black Boy/American Hunger between Wright and a Communist preacher on the South Side of Chicago.
When Hoover threatened to drive the bonus marchers from Washington, one Negro Communist speaker said:
“If he drives the bonus marchers out of Washington, the people will rise up and make a revolution!”
I went to him, determined to get at what he really meant.
“You know that even if the United States Army actually kills the bonus marchers, there’ll be no revolution,” I said.
“You don’t know the indignation of the masses!” he exploded.
“But you don’t seem to know what it takes to make a revolution,” I explained. “Revolutions are rare occurrences.”
“You underestimate the masses,” he told me.
“No, I know the masses of Negroes very well,” I said. “But I don’t believe that a revolution is pending. Revolutions come through concrete historical processes…”
“You’re an intellectual,” he said, smiling disdainfully.
A few days later, after Hoover had had the bonus marchers driven from Washington at the point of bayonets, I accosted him:
“What about that revolution you predicted if the bonus marchers were driven out?” I asked.
“The prerequisite conditions did not exist,” he shrugged and muttered.
I left him, wondering why he felt it necessary to make so many ridiculous overstatements.
I believe that urbanization is the key “concrete historical process” by which communal violence comes to an end in a society. The urban state cannot allow mob justice; for it is urban mobs, not the nuclear weapons of enemy states, that are the greatest threat to the state. So the urban state must establish a monopoly on violence. The great benefit to this, ironically, is that ordinary people come to hate violence. Americans are infinitely more likely to take to the streets to protest violence than to carry it out.
There is, however, a period of time in which a young urban society–its inhabitants fresh from the countryside, its state not yet afraid of its citizenry–engages in massive, urban communal violence. In the U.S., it was our Red Summer of 1919. India still seems to be going through this phase.
To end, I would like to share a passage from Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, in which the author speaks to Shiv Sena (ruling party) cadre who engaged in the communal violence that killed thousands of Mumbai Muslims in 1993.
But in January 1999, the Sena makes a big mistake: It takes on Sachin Tendulkar, the country’s most idolized cricketer. A mob of Sainiks storms into the offices of the Board of Cricket Control of India, angered by the board’s invitation to the Pakistani cricket team to tour India. They destroy the office, including the World Cup that had been brought home to India in 1983. Tendulkar is put under police protection, and the party’s leaders speedily distance themselves from the incident. By this point it has just become mob frenzy; the tiger Thackeray rides is now out of his control. This latest foray is not about a particular leader or even ideology; it is all about power and about feeding the imagination of Thackeray’s hordes. The vandals are young men, who, after working twelve-hour days as peons in some office where they endure humiliation and evan a slap or two from men who are richer and less Maharashtrian than they are, take the train home. Inside the train, they bathe in perspiration; the air is fetid with sweat and farts. When they get home to the slum, their mothers and their fathers and their grandmothers will ask them what income they have brought home. Such a man lives with a constant sense of his own powerlessness, except when he is part of a mob, part of a contingent of seventy patriots fighting for the country’s honor, walking umolested into movie theaters, posh apartments, and the offices of the cricket lords of the country, smashing trophies, beating up important people who drive fine cars. All the accumulated insults, rebukes, and disappointments of life in a decaying megalopolis come out in a cathartic release of anger. It’s okay to be angry in a crowd; the crowd feeds on your anger, digests it, nourishes your rage as your rage nourishes it. It is not their city anymore, it is your city. You own this city by right of your anger.
And finally, from the previous page:
“How can a man kill?” I ask Amol. “How can he bring himself to do it?”
“You are a writer. After drinking you will say to yourself, now I must write a story. If you are a dancer, after drinking you will feel like dancing. If you are a killer, after drinking you will think, Now I must kill somebody.” Amol flexes his arms. It’s what you do; it’s in your nature.
Thanks, Fritz. Just to add to the mix a point that de Tocqueville, wise as usual, made, but which is so often ignored: “It is not always in going from bad to worse that one falls into revolution. It more often happens that a people who have borne without complaint, as if they did not feel them, the most burdensome laws, reject them violently once their weight is lightened. The regime that a revolution destroys is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it.” (From de Tocqueville’s book which has been translated as “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” Volume I; here as translated by Alan S. Kahan (University of Chicago Press)