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Haunted by history

Trigger Warning: nuclear warfare, racism, genocide

The first Republican presidential primary debate will be held tonight at 6 pm Pacific / 9 pm Eastern. Much of the pre-debate analysis has so far emphasized the newly invented (and continuously updated) metrics for determining which of the seventeen major candidates could appear on stage and otherwise be as visible as possible. I won’t be able to livetweet tonight’s debate, and probably won’t even be available to offer any commentary at all while the debates occur, so I won’t be around to question and complicate that somewhat narrow focus on the debaters themselves. Instead, I want to ask a small thing of you while you watch it without me. Before the debate begins, meditate on two curiously coincidental anniversaries that fall on today of all days, and cast their long historical shadow on the current policy prescriptions of the Republican Party.

On August 6, 1945, the United States used the first atomic weapon ever used in wartime on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The vast majority of affected people were non-combative civilians, which by some estimates caused approximately 66,000 deaths in the initial blast. That fails to account for many of the deaths in the following months, form exposure and resulting poverty as well as from radiation sickness and related complications – but which are also estimated to number in the thousands.

The overwhelming nature of the death and destruction in Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) is something that the United States has failed to fully grapple with, if the tantrum-like demands for a similarly apocalyptic war with Iran among some political figures is any indication. Instead, conflict and war has become almost an invisible backdrop of American life, shielding those who expect war without debate or question from criticism. US military deployment has become a perpetual state of being on multiple continents, seemingly without even a hypothetical end. As Guantánamo reminds us, this military infrastructure is often on other countries’ land, unwanted, and in some senses an occupying force. We have yet to fully break with this expansive militaristic tradition, but keep your ears peeled tonight to see how much the Republican Party’s major candidates want to reject the possibility of ever doing that.

On August 6, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) into law, securing most particularly the rights of Black citizens of the United States of access to the ballot box, but giving similar protections to various other systemically disenfranchised groups – namely indigenous and Latin@ communities. Since then, these guarantees have come under an unforgiving cynicism from conservative figures either coordinating with or directly a part of the Republican Party. The aims are at times quite transparent, particularly in the less official political circles, where talk of “demographic winter” makes obvious the racist fears underpinning a large swathe of the conservative movement.

As the United States steadily returns to being, among other things, a less White country, there have been a number of political responses. Chief among them has been to softly roll back numerical presence as a force within our democratic system, most obviously by resurrecting voter suppression tactics common in places where the White population was a minority or a much slimmer majority than electorally desirable. Jim Crow and related policies of racist political, social, and economic control have not been dismantled fully, but the specific policies of the Republican Party have become ones designed to maintain what has remained and reconstruct what parts of those have been dismantled. Listen to hear the new, politically correct (or not so much) those policies will be discussed tonight.

hiroshima also vra(Left – Hiroshima after the bombing, Right – President Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks after the VRA was signed. From here and here respectively)

So, on the night of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the VRA help the phantoms those events raise haunt the Republican Party. As desires of military confrontation with Iran are raised, let the image of the shattered Atomic Dome rise in your mind. When talk of the need to protect the ballot box from voter fraud comes up, allow the pain of the tear gas used on those on the March to Selma pass over you. These are our ghosts, and we cannot will them away. Don’t help the Republican Primary brush them off either – either in how they talk about them, or refuse to talk about them altogether.

The featured image for this article is an drawn rendition of the Oglala Lakota’s Ghost Dance as performed at Pine Ridge in 1890, from here. There are many ghosts in US history.

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