“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
I’m still moanin’ about the high school massacre in Parkdale, Florida. Moaning, and thinking. About guns, and politics, and history.
The massacre was horrendous, but also distinctively compelling, insofar as the extraordinary response of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students has truly caught the attention of the nation. While it is common in the wake of these shootings to publish tributes to the victims, this time attention is being focused on the friends of the victims, in their capacity not (simply) as mourners but as political actors, who have entered the public sphere to advocate for gun control and sane public policy, and have indeed declared themselves to be initiators of a movement bearing the name #NeverAgain. Due to the reach of cable news and social media, millions of people have been moved by the powerful speech of Emma Gonzalez; the articulate and savvy commentaries of David Hogg, which have generated attacks from right-wing trolls; and the rapid public response of the many amazing students, who within days of the traumatic and murderous attack “descended” on the state capitol in Tallahassee (this is the very term used by most news commentaries) to demand legislative action (and to be rebuffed, further politicizing them).
A political opening has emerged, and this is very hopeful.
Less hopeful is the backlash this has generated on the right, replete with social media harassment of the students, conspiracy-mongering about George Soros, and an angry, hateful, and incendiary speech by Wayne LaPierre, the public face of the National Rifle Association, before the Conservative Political Action Committee.
LaPierre predictably denounced advocates of gun control, extolled the virtues of his organization, and exhorted his followers to “defend the Second Amendment” as the foundation of freedom itself. But he went much further. Taking a page from last year’s notorious NRA recruitment video, in which Dana Loesch angrily calls for a “fight” against the liberal “violence of lies” with “the clenched fist of truth,” LaPierre painted a picture of a country besieged by dangerous followers of “Saul Alinski” (sic) and partisans of “European socialism” intent on eradicating all traces of freedom. Denouncing gun control as a leftist assault, he invoked “illegal criminals … crossing our borders every single day … the scourge of gang violence and drug crime that savages Baltimore, Chicago, and every major American community … [and] the plague of opioids, and Chinese fentanyl from Mexico, that floods American streets and kills victims every single day in this country,” concluding thus: “No wonder law-abiding Americans, all over this country, revere their Second Amendment freedom to protect themselves more than ever.”
In the tradition of political paranoia long ago analyzed by the great historian Richard Hofstadter, LaPierre linked the surging “foreign” threats with a more insidious threat from within: the Obama-influenced Democratic party:
A party that is now infested with saboteurs who don’t believe in capitalism, don’t believe in the Constitution, don’t believe in our freedom, and don’t believe in America as we know it. Obama may be gone, but their utopian dream, it marches on. And President Trump’s election, while crucial, can’t turn away the wave of these new European style socialists bearing down upon us. … This growing socialist state dreams of manipulating schoolchildren, to squeeze and squeeze information about their parents. They’ll be asking your kids if mommy and daddy spank them, or what mommy and daddy feeds them for dinner, they’ll want to know what TV shows you watch, what magazines, newspapers you read, and, oh, yes, do mommy and daddy own a gun? And all that private information will be entered into that ultimate list, that cloud of data storage that couldn’t care less about due process and constitutional freedom and your privacy as an American citizen.
As important as the words themselves are the tone and the enthusiastic audience response. And the fact that this man speaks as the leader of an exceptionally well-organized and well financed association with five million members. And that what distinguishes this association is that its members are armed, and that too many of these members believe that their guns are needed above all to protect themselves, and freedom itself, from us.
And this brings me to the color brown.
As in the color of fascism. So-called because of the uniforms of the SA, or “Storm Troopers,” the paramilitary units formed by Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1921 in Munich, composed mainly of deracinated, demobilized, and armed former soldiers. The role of these paramilitary units — which were purged in the so-called bloody Night of the Long Knives of June 30, 1934 — in the evolution of the Nazi regime is complicated, a topic treated in a new book by historian Daniel Siemens. What is straightforward is that, in the words of one commentator: “The SA was from the first a violent force that was the offensive weapon by which the Nazi implemented their strategy that ‘those who ruled the street’ would sooner or later also come to political power. Their unbridled brutality … played a key role in intimidating their party’s enemies and giving physical form to their ideas, and their success marched hand in hand with that of the party.”
To be clear: while I have written many things in these very “pages” about the real dangers of authoritarianism posed by Trump, I am not saying that Wayne LaPierre is an Ernest Rohm or Trump is a Hitler or that the current crisis of American liberal democracy is similar in fundamental ways to the crisis of the Weimar Republic in Germany. To the contrary, a point to which I will return momentarily.
My point here is simpler, and perhaps even less controversial: Wayne LaPierre represents a real fascist tendency in American society, as his speeches make clear, a tendency literally linked to the rhetorical exaltation of “clenched fists” and guns and violence and also to the actual bearing of firearms. And if the parallel with the “Brown Shirts” that I invoke here is perhaps overstated, and provocative — perhaps, though perhaps not — then I have succeeded rhetorically. Because gun violence is very real and, as LaPierre’s speech makes clear, it is not just about rogue killers and innocent victims, it is about politics, the politics of gun control policy and more fundamentally the politics of citizenship itself.
Here it is worth underscoring that the NRA represents what might be called the “respectable” wing of a broader movement that includes militia groups, violent white supremacist groups, and some bona fide neo-Nazis. And that this movement has strongly aligned itself with Donald Trump, and Trump in turn has given rhetorical aid and comfort to the movement (as Public Seminar’s new volume on Charlottesville makes clear). That Trump is now actively promoting a central NRA talking point — that there ought to be no “gun free zones,” and that the solution to gun violence in schools is for teachers to be armed, so that teachers can “shoot the hell” out of suspected attackers — is one small sign of this. But this small sign can have large consequences. For we can be sure that many school districts, and a fair number of teachers or at least coaches in these districts, will clamor to embrace this proposal. And there will be more guns, and more mistrust, and more violence. And the political and ideological tensions between gun ideologues and the rest of us will be injected into schools and classrooms everywhere across the country.
A small step towards vigilantism, the paramilitary logic of “posse comitatus” and so-called “sovereign citizenship,” and the undermining of the rule of law and of liberal democracy.
And yet the U.S. is not Weimar Germany. Its liberal democracy is facing crisis, while Weimar Germany barely had one. But its society has not been ravaged by a recent world war, and while the “war on terrorism” has produced many veterans (and many casualties), their demobilization has not engendered a paramilitary mass movement. Its party system, while corrupt and decaying, is not on the verge of collapse. And it does not include an extreme right party (nor does it include an extreme left party). Most importantly, while there are authoritarian dangers, there are also signs of institutional resilience and the emergence of promising forms of resistance. Like the students from Parkside, Florida, and like their compatriots elsewhere across the country, who are raising their voices for a better future.
LaPierre represents a real political tendency, and one with real resonance, and powerful allies, in the White House. The picture of American society painted in his speech is perfectly consistent with Trump’s inaugural “this American carnage” speech. Both are Manichean. In 1982 LaPierre stated: “We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing.” Trump also speaks in this way. And this rhetoric has traction.
But there are alternatives. #NeverAgain, with its diverse participants and their many voices, sounds a different theme. Jeffrey Goldfarb regularly reflects here on the many shades of gray that continue to color our world, and that stand as reproaches and obstacles to a Manichean politics.
I would like to close with brown.
Not here as a symbol of fascism, but as a symbol of persistence, and resistance, and emancipation.
As in “Black, Brown, and Beige.”
In January, 1943 Duke Ellington, the African-American musician and bandleader who had already established himself as one of the most important composers in the history of American music, brought his band to New York for its first-ever concert at Carnegie Hall. The band — called the Duke Ellington Orchestra — debuted an extended, symphonic suite entitled “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which Ellington described as a “parallel” or allegory of the “history of the Negro in America.” This is how the concert was described in a 1999 New York Times retrospective:
Most musicians making their Carnegie Hall debut don’t open with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But this was no ordinary debut. On Jan. 23, 1943, Duke Ellington and his orchestra played to a capacity crowd in a benefit concert for the Russian War Relief fund. Ellington was riding high. At 43 he was one of the leading exponents of swing, the exuberant style of jazz then reaching the crest of its popularity. His music was known throughout the world. Thousands bought his recordings, listened to his radio broadcasts, danced to his rhythms and romanced to his songs. That evening at Carnegie Hall, though, Ellington chose to play more than “Mood Indigo,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the other hits his fans expected. He also made it clear that he expected recognition as a serious composer. This was evident when his orchestra gave the premiere of “Black, Brown and Beige,” a work of symphonic proportions subtitled “A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America.” Ellington turned the concert into a teach-in, portraying in his music the struggles, hopes and achievements of African-Americans from the time of slavery to the present. It was a bold gambit. But the broad vision was characteristic of the man who years before had declared “the music of my race is something which is going to live, something which posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of the music of the ballroom today.”
Think about it. In the year 1943 a Black man and jazz musician performs his first concert at Carnegie Hall; in the midst of World War, he opens the concert with the national anthem; he debuts a symphonic testament to the history of racism but also the celebration of Black resistance to oppression; and he declares the concert a benefit to the Russian War Relief fund.
The concert was an exercise in antifascist resistance, linking together the themes of American patriotism, racism and the struggle against it, and the European war against Hitler.
Among the many pieces comprising Ellington’s suite, two stand out for their musical resonance with the experience of freedom.
The first, “Come Sunday,” is a Negro spiritual. Originally written and performed as an instrumental tune, Ellington added words in 1958. Part of the “Black” section of Ellington’s suite, the song was apparently intended to capture the slave experience of church on Sunday, which was an experience of both social exclusion (from the white church) and spiritual yearning. The song has become both something of a jazz standard and a hymnal sung at many Christian religious services. It is sung here by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson:
The second, “Emancipation Celebration,” is an exuberant swing tune. Part of the “Brown” section of Ellington’s suite, it was conceived as a celebration of post-civil war emancipation:
Both tunes, and the suite more generally, tell a story that is at once disturbing, tragic, and empowering. Ellington’s “brown” signifies something diametrically opposed to the drab and racist “brown” evoked by LaPierre. Indeed, Ellington’s suite — with its many musical sections, its complex instrumentation, and its many shades (black, brown, and beige) of “the Negro experience” in America — is a kind of jazz testament to “e pluribus unum.”
Listen to Ellington himself introduce the suite’s final section, “Beige,” in the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert:
Ellington’s words sound a broadly patriotic theme. At the same time, they also make clear that what links “black, brown and beige” with “red, white, and blue” is a struggle, against fascism and for freedom, whose outcome is uncertain, and that democracy is a promise yet to be fully redeemed.
I doubt that many of the Parkland students, whose moral resilience and political courage so inspire us, are familiar with Ellington’s suite. And of course, the suite has a racial subtext that intersects with the problem of gun violence, and policing, in complex ways. At the same time, as Ellington himself reminds us, if the suite is a “parallel” to “the Negro” history in the U.S., it is also a parallel to the ongoing history of democratic contestation in U.S. In this sense, the students of #NeverAgain can be seen, hopefully, as composers and as improvisers in the spirit of Ellington. These young people have endured an almost unimaginable experience of sheer terror. And yet, instead of pouting, they are “writing” their own blues, and making their own history. La Lotta Continua.