[6 September 2007]
Pastor Bob Miles, Ku Klux Klan member, had been holding gatherings of far right groups on his farm in Michigan since 1979. Representatives from the Klan, the American Nazi Party, Aryan Nation and the White Patriot Party met to discuss the direction of racialist politics in America. In 1991, a year before Miles’ death, Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway filmed one of these meetings.
The camera didn’t inhibit these supporters of an America forged along Nazi lines. They enthusiastically denounce all non-whites and plan for the establishment of a racist and authoritarian nation. Knowing this is a documentary about right wing extremists doesn’t lessen the shock of what they say.
Tom Wolfe famously said the “night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” The standard view of the American far right is that it is marginal to society because the United States doesn’t have an authoritarian tradition of Europe, nor has it been wracked by its crises. This film tends to support this view because it shows that while America is not immune to ideas which oppose its founding principles, it suggests these ideas are removed from the public. Yet the filmmakers fail to posit any underlying ideas as to why these people are drawn to the far-right ideology in the first place.
Clearly Bohlen, Rafferty and Ridgeway wanted to hang back and capture the men—and it is almost entirely men—in their own words. It opens with a group of them chatting on Pastor Miles’ property. Some are in military uniform, a couple are in kilts, and others wear suits and baseball hats. There are stalls where books and t-shirts are sold. Off screen you hear children laughing. The audience could be mistaken for thinking this was a meeting of military hobbyists. That is until the camera enters the so-called “Hall of Giants”. Swastikas hang alongside American flags. There is a bust of Hitler in the corner.
Seeing ordinary people seriously discuss the existence of the “Zionist Occupation Government” or say “I am a violent anti Semite” and use the Nazi salute is unsettling. How else can one act but with anger, disgust, and despair when they hear a young man dressed like an SS guard say “Hopefully we will be on the front line smashing the skulls of communists, executing race traitors, and shooting on sight anyone we don’t think is white”? Yet the filmmakers manage to remain largely dispassionate and absent from the screen.
The initial shock gives way to a sense that these more violent views, as repugnant as they are, conform to the image of members of the far-right as inarticulate thugs or delusional psychotics. If this was all the film revealed, it wouldn’t reveal much. Sadly, even in liberal societies, unpalatable ideas exist. The film is more effective in the portrayal of leaders like Pastor Bob Miles. He is not necessarily more articulate than his followers, but his language is never inflammatory. Rather, he uses the language of class and sees this movement as coming from and representing ordinary people. He is very careful to present himself as someone who identifies with his supposed audience.
Blood in the Face is stronger when the directors hold back. By giving these people opportunity to present their views, unchallenged by the crew, much more about the far right is revealed. The most obvious point is the apparent normality of the interviewees. There are a few bald heads but no shaved ones. This suggests the movement is no more robust than its members. None of them possess the cold psychosis of Hando from Romper Stomper. Their appearance is ordinary and their demeanor mostly calm and conversational. Their delivery is as chilling as their views.
Understandably, the filmmakers cannot remain disengaged for long. An unnamed interviewer, either Rafferty or Ridgeway, tells Thom Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, that Pastor Miles hasn’t included his home state of Arkansas among the states intended for their Aryan nation. That Robb agrees isn’t as important as how well this moment suggests the movement isn’t completely cohesive.
When the interviewers are more confrontational, the film falters. Rather than letting the people undo themselves with their own nonsense, Michael Moore makes the mistake of challenging a Canadian fascist and a minister from the ‘Christian Identity’ Church, to prove how the Canadian can deny the Holocaust but believe in the crucifixion of Christ, given the overwhelming evidence of the former. This legitimate question is handled awkwardly. Moore can’t refrain from sounding judgmental and so plays into their hands. The fascist and the minister just peddle out the same lies as all Holocaust deniers.
Apart from the apparent ordinariness of these people, the film illustrates the grassroots structure of the movement. Prejudice and intolerance are not mutually exclusive to a small scale organization. Fascism doesn’t have to mean ranks of jack booted soldiers marching underneath a single Führer. Apparently, it can be decentralized and informal. It can have forums and discussions. Eerily, it mirrors the patterns of more progressive politics, whose supporters in more recent times has abandoned monolithic party structures and organized themselves around specific issues. The ultra reactionaries presented here are united in their world view but splintered into organizations. This is a divergence from the more openly authoritarian fascist parties of the past.
However, the filmmakers offer no figures on membership rates nor the demographic of these groups. The implication is that it is small and mostly working class. The men shown in SS uniforms hold menial jobs. One Klan member says that he was an orphan. Yet alienation, if we’re to maintain a class analysis, doesn’t explain everything. Why aren’t more factory workers coming to this gathering? If there is a surge in right-wing extremism among workers and the poor, the film doesn’t show it. Sure, it personalizes the supporters, but it takes their motives at face value.
Similarly, the inclusion of the George Lincoln Rockwell interview needs further analysis. It is important to show that the current extreme right has a history going back to the ‘50s; a decade after the US fought Nazi Germany. There is newsreel of Rockwell expressing views in line with those we heard earlier, but no details are given regarding the nature or number of his supporters. As this is part of the historical record, this material should include some commentary, either by the directors or an expert, to indicate its importance.
Despite such extreme views, the tactics seem fairly mainstream. Participants discuss trying to get elected to public office. At this point there is a cutaway to David Duke who was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1989 on a Republican ticket. Yes, it shows that advocates of repellent, violent ideologies can adapt their message and use the spin of modern politicians so that hate and fear become courage and pride. Yes, it lampoons his evasions of questions about his Klan membership by showing him in the trademark robes. But it doesn’t attempt to explain who voted for him and why. Plus, a former Klan member is an easy target. They missed a chance to investigate mainstream politicians who may harbor similar prejudices, and so missed the connection between the extreme and the middle and how the former moves toward the latter.
Producing videos are a favored technique of the far right. The content of the propaganda tapes differs from what the attendees have said directly to this camera only in that it is more hateful and delusional. This segment tests the documentary’s aloof style. When engaging with the fascists directly, it was more effective to allow them to present their views with commentary. When showing the propaganda material, the film should have engaged with it. The filmmakers do not say how ‘popular’ the videos are or who is their main audience. The reference to videos also shows how dated the film is because the web has become the principle medium for right wing extremism. Given that this documentary has been released on DVD, perhaps a brief commentary on racist politics on the web could have been included to make it more relevant to now.
Other tactics appear almost comical. The American Nazi Party says that it plans to raise money for farms by setting up chain stores under its moniker to sell clothing, literature and videotapes. Again, there is a parallel with issue-based politics, whose supporters often proclaim their favorite cause on their chests. I can only hope there is little support, as it is not stated whether a market for their views exists.
In some ways, these fascists do differ from their 20th century counterparts in that they are overtly religious. Though it had sympathizers and even allies in the church, the earlier movement was largely secular; it used the language of biology and historical determinism to underpin its ideology. The participants in this film at times from the older, deeply flawed, pseudo-science, but more often they point to the Bible as evidence for their beliefs. These racists believe they are the chosen people. The only evidence any of them can produce to prove this is the debatable etymology of the name, ‘Adam’. A minister from the Christian Identity Church, Allen Poe, says ‘Adam’ means ‘he with blood in the face’ then states, incorrectly, that Caucasians are the only people who can blush. Ergo Adam was a white man. Ergo Europeans are the true Israelites. All this rests on the spurious meaning of a name.
This strong identification with Christianity reaches a logical conclusion in the film when Pastor Miles presides over a wedding during the evening of the meeting. When he blesses the couple he says “blessings be to thee, blessing be forever. May this marriage be blessed with bounteous numbers of children. May you have families that reach for the stars and do honor to Him who has sent you here.” The language is ostentatious but not that dissimilar from more mainstream religion. It is the burning cross, cloaks, and hoods of the KKK that lend this celebration it sinister undertone.
A film like this is always going to be obvious about its intentions. Prejudice and bigotry incite a sense of moral outrage (in the average viewer, we hope). Filming these people implies a desire to challenge their ideas as much as it tries to portray them. The question then is how to challenge them. Clearly, the filmmakers believe that such a challenge can arise through dialogue and understanding. They have given us a snapshot of a movement nestled close to many of the values of ordinary society. Yet there is no explanation. We see the darkness—but not what casts it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/blood-in-the-face/