Friday, November 13, 2009

Mob Rule

I was fascinated and appalled by the PBS docudrama, The People Vs. Leo M. Frank. I had not known the story before. Frank, as the docudrama portrays him, was a rather distant, stand-offish Jew who held a supervisory position at a pencil factory in Atlanta in the early 20th century--a time when Jews had only recently begun to migrate to the South. When a 13 year-old girl, an employee, was found brutally murdered in the factory basement, the police investigation focused first on the black night watchmen who discovered the body, but soon turned to Frank. At his trial, a second African American man, one John Conley, was also implicated, but was brought in to testify, falsely, against Frank.

After Frank's conviction, his case became a national cause celebre, with the Northern liberal press protesting loudly about the unfairness of the trial and the anti-Semitism it had unleashed. It soon became clear that Frank was indeed innocent and that Conley was the real culprit, but the then governor of the state took the political route, commuting Frank's death sentence but denying him pardon. Frank was then sent to a prison far from the epicenter of the affair in Atlanta. Fired by blind fury and vengeance, and by their virulent anti-Jewish bias, a posse led by a former governor and a judge drove a hundred miles to the prison and dragged the object of their vengeful fury out, driving him back to the home town of the murdered girl where they hanged him summarily from a tree. The dangling body became a public spectacle that fed the rage of those swept up in the fires of mob justice.

The event marked the expansion of KKK-style hatred from blacks to Jews and other ethnic groups beginning to migrate from north to south. Watching the docudrama, I could not resist the analogy between that lynch mob and the crowd on the Capitol steps, just a week ago, who had been summoned there by extreme right-wing ideologues to shout their slogans against those lawmakers who support a perfectly reasonable--indeed, already much watered-down--health care bill. No lynching, of course, in the literal sense. But the depth of raw rage expressed in the slogans and the banners--including the one that showed images of stacks of naked bodies at the Dachau concentration camp--seemed to me to come from the same well of vile ignorance and blind hatred. Mob mentality was the rule. No amount of factual information or rational argument would have swayed those minds. Aside from their prejudice, nothing would speak to them--not even their own self-interest.

It is truly dreadful to see this spirit alive in America today. The KKK has been long discredited by the vast majority of Americans, but their spirit still infects the thinking of that small, loud minority that we hear so much about in the media. It appeals to the darkest aspect of the human species, an instinctive fear of change and abhorrence of otherness. It's the spirit that leads, in its extremest form, to genocide. Even its less catastrophic manifestations--homophobia, sexism--it reveals a repellent, ugly side to human nature. It is sad indeed when it is institutionally fostered for political ends, and particularly so when its passion are fueled by what claims to be religion.

We were talking about this phenomenon with friends last night. History provides too many examples to demonstrate that it is not peculiarly American. One might have hoped that the modern world would bring with it advances in education and some resultant evidence of greater mutual tolerance on this, our shrinking planet. But no. From the holocaust to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, hatred and ignorance persist and bring with them mass slaughter of innocents. That mob on Capitol Hill were not wielding machetes, perhaps; they had not brought ropes to hang those in opposition to their cause. But the words and images proceeded from the same willful ignorance, the same well of fury and mistrust, the same deeply-rooted fear of difference and change.

It's a frightening spectacle. We claim, self-righteously, to be a better, more enlightened place than other, dark spots in the world. As I was saying only the other day, even as we point the finger at others on this planet, we are in great danger of forgetting the beam in our own eye.


mandt said...

"---to be a better, more enlightened place" requires an excellent, world class, public education of which America no longer seems capable.

robin andrea said...

I read this article from time to time to remind myself why things are they way they are.

Psychopaths rule.

robin andrea said...

Oh, I just remembered this: I'm pretty sure that I first read that article on mandt's blog years ago!