‘The Birth of a Nation’ is considered one of the greatest silent films ever made in American cinematography, both for its technical, narrative and artistic achievements. The entire film can be viewed online here. One of the first ever film blockbusters, a huge financial and critical success, it is also considered one of the most controversial films in American cinematography, for its glorification of white supremacy, and the Ku Klux Klan. The film, made in 1915, helped in the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan, and the inflaming of anti-black sentiments.
The film is centered on two families, one from the North, and the other from the South, and their relations before, during, and after the Civil War. Southern society is seen as under threat from the black militias during the war, and afterwards, by Northern politicians portrayed as empowering black people through election fraud at the expense of the communities of the South. One black man, shown as typically violent and immoral leads to one white girl committing suicide, to escape his unethical advances. In the end, the new Ku Klux Klan, working for the protection of Southern Society, hunts down the man, and disperses the rioting ‘crazed Negroes’ from the streets. In the next elections, the Klan manages to disenfranchise and disarm the blacks, and thus defend the character of the South.
The film quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s history of the American people: ‘The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country’. The messages it wants to give are clear – that African Americans were incapable of integrating into American society and were violent and dangerous, that the KKK was an instrument of ‘defense’, defending the more moral and ethical society of the South, and that this society was based, as the film itself shows it, on Christian teachings, and the ‘Aryan birthright’ of Southern Whites, and their right to protect it in their states.
What is the significance of the film to us today? It is not merely as a historical film to study the era of racism and segregation in the US. Though the parallels with the Palestinian conflict should be obvious, those are also not the only points to be made. What is perhaps more significant, is the nature of the rationalization of racism itself, its non-controversial nature, and the type of ideas used to do so.
What is significant is that the Southern Whites who supported racism, segregation, and the Klan, truly believed in the logic depicted in the film. It was not merely a propaganda tool for external audiences to justify racism as ‘moral’, with the Klan and the South itself self-aware of themselves doing something ‘wrong’. The Whites of the South truly saw their actions as righteous, as protecting their society and families, and as moral and proper. And understanding this, is to understand much of the nature of ideologies which we recognize today as unethical. There are no groups of people which are born biologically more ‘evil’ than others. The southern whites did not have any ‘gene’ for immorality. Nor do people wakeup with a self-aware intent to ‘do evil’. Evil may be what they do, but it is almost always rationalized to themselves by an internal discourse that explains their actions as rational and moral. And such people are otherwise humans like the rest of us – were you to meet a member of the Klan, and avoided topics on politics or race or religion, you might feel as if that person is somebody good enough to socialise with.
This is not meant to excuse away racism, or any other immoral ideology – both the behavior and the social worldview that produces it is condemnable and to be fought against. But it still a reality that one must understand, to be able to judge one’s self and actions. Since most people rationalize their actions in such ways as described above, they cannot accept them or see them as evil or immoral; perhaps because they think that all those other people whom we condemn as unethical, the Nazis, and Fascists, and Klan members, were self-aware of doing ‘evil’ and since they themselves are not self-aware of doing so, they cannot be similar to those groups. Yet in fact all such groups consist of self-rationalizing members, and our ability to justify our actions as part of a discourse which paints them as moral, does not mean they truly are so.
Which brings us to the conflict in Palestine. Most Israelis seem shocked, angered and indignant, when someone from outside their society, who has not been conditioned with the same rationalizations, calls them racist, or Nazis, or Fascists. To them, this cannot be so, because ‘their’ actions are ‘obviously justified’ to themselves, dressed in the language of defense, ‘protection’ of a ‘democratic’ and ‘just’ society and of ‘moral’ values. They are not themselves conscious of, and actively seeking to, be ‘evil’. Knowing each other personally, they see people who, whatever their politics, seem normal human beings. So, how, to them, can they be compared to such condemnable views? Obviously it must be that the ones giving the criticism do so because they are not really familiar with Israeli society, and simply fail to see their point of view, and how their actions are rationalized.
What they fail to see is how all societies and all groups rationalize their actions in the same way as to seem natural to them. Humans are psychologically similar everywhere in the world. Israelis like to point out that there is internal ‘debate’ in their society, and different view points, as if that makes the fundamental nature of their society any less unethical – as if the debate, and difference in viewpoints in the old US, made segregation and widespread racism any less wrong. It is the very fact that the actions of the state of Israel and its fundamental Zionist nature are even topics for debate, and not immediately condemnable by all members of society other than the extreme fringes, that indicates that there is something with Israeli society.
Looking at the language of rationalization shows the same patterns in most cases of oppression. What is done, is done for the sake of defense, protecting society, or the state, or its ‘Aryan’ or ‘Jewish’ character, maintaining its ethical nature etc. Often this is done against an enemy who is somehow more inherently evil, or violent, who cannot come to accept the moral doctrines which must be protected. It is commonly said among Israelis that the only language Arabs understand is force. Ben Gurion described the Arabs as living in the 15th century. To many Zionists this line of thinking goes even further, seeing the Arabs not only as an immoral, violent group of people, but also as one that is, or was, actively occupying something they had no right to – so it was the Irgun and Lehi, and the early Haganah commanders were rationalizing their actions as ‘liberating’ the land of Israel from the occupying Arabs, even as they were carrying out atrocity after atrocity in ‘47-48 and forcing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This has been rationalized, as have all the range of policies of Israel throughout the decades, through the language of ‘defense’ and ‘protection’, of the myth of the irrational Arab who wants to kill Jews, and the myth of a moral Israel whose actions cannot be the main reason for the conflict and violence of the region.
Again, this sort of thinking is not new or original in any way. I’ve mentioned the similar rhetoric in ‘Birth of a Nation’. The same undercurrents can be seen in ‘Triumph of the Will’. In the start of the film, in the only commentary given, we are told ‘On 5 September 1934, …20 years after the outbreak of the World War… 16 years after the beginning of our suffering… 19 months after the beginning of the German renaissance… Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers…’. Again, the Germans attracted to Nazi ideology did not do so because they were genetically more ‘evil’ than other men. They did so because the message it gave them was rationalized, in the language of protecting and creating a German renaissance, something that was ‘good’ and to be protected; It was rationalized in the language of a German society under attack and suffering, from its enemies outside and inside, from the powers that crippled it after WWI, and the ‘Jewish and Communist conspiracy’ devoted to humiliating it.
What is actually defended is an idea and a message. A message of a ‘White’, ‘Christian’ South, or an ‘Aryan’ Nazi nation-state that will bring forth the glory of the German people, or of a Jewish-state in Palestine that would be a ‘beacon onto the nations’, explained through anachronistic rhetoric of the ‘land of the ancestors’ and millennia old histories. All these messages were given more weight by a sense of the group in question being under attack or oppressed – whether such oppression was real or perceived – and none are any more moral than the other.
For the early Zionists, and Israelis today, it could not be conceivable that their state, or the state they were trying to create, was based on a set of ideas, that fundamentally, was not moral, and could not be acceptable to any other group of people it would affect. From its own perspective, Israel never did anything ‘wrong’ before or during 1948. Thus with this denial of its own character, it refused to acknowledge the grievances of the displaced Palestinians and surrounding Arabs, self-created the myth of the violent, immoral, uncooperative Arab, and reinforced the concept of its ‘security’ being guaranteed through a massive differential in force between it and the Arabs, which would involve a disproportionate use of force against them, and active work to keep the surrounding states weaker than itself. Israeli actions in effect created an internal racism against the remaining Arabs both inside it and in the neighboring states, policies of discrimination and displacement, active attempts for the de-development of the Arab states and the non-fulfillment of the aspirations of their citizens, and a huge number of military actions that led to the deaths of countless people. In being such an unstable influence in the region, Israel also helped in the radicalization of Arab politics, and the empowerment of extremist groups in the surrounding area.
That Israelis rationalize all of the above, and see all their actions as legitimate and moral defense is immaterial – everybody as we have seen does the same. The difference between Zionism, for that is really the message that is rationalized, and all the other movements examined, is that those are no longer supported, because the outside world has flooded the societies that followed them with messages of de-rationalization, and narratives that present the unethical nature of their character. This was not done in the case of Israel, initially due to Holocaust guilt, and today because of the earlier success of Israel in redefining and retelling history to the outside world.
I do not expect an Israeli or a supporter of Israel to be convinced of the immorality of Zionism by this argument, because to them, the narrative of the legitimacy of early Zionism leading to the creation of a largely blameless and moral Israel, that has to defend itself through legitimate actions and policies, is what they perceive as reality – and my aim here is not to proceed with historical analysis of events, trends, and statements, to disprove this view. That would be a much larger exercise. The point here is, that the fact that a narrative can be produced by the Israeli side to rationalize itself and its actions, does not mean that narrative is correct. Such narratives have existed for all movements, and for all cases of injustice – and the fact that Israelis do not see themselves as consciously unjust does not make them any less so that the Klan members of ‘Birth of a Nation’.