Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Murder in the family of a National Socialist Party leader

What alarms me about the murder of Jeff Hall by his son yesterday has little to do with the world as it is now constituted. The National Socialist Movement appears to be composed of fringe elements that seem unable to cope with a world careering ever faster into a jumble of new social connections and relations. For such people the emerging world defies all hope of maintaining a sense of significance and security like the social world that they suppose was once simpler and more orderly.

The murder exposes a family under stress. Jeff Hall himself had not been coping well with his world, and his son was apparently a casualty of the confusion that Jeff himself reflected. What worries me about such situations is what it reveals about how a society generally under stress might look like.

We all want to find reasons for our problems outside of ourselves; we need explanations for why our world is beyond us – and of course many of our problems are circumstantial, framed by situations outside of ourselves. When societies decay, marked by a collapse of the economy, people are inclined to look for scapegoats. The National Socialist Party of Jeff Hall is driven by the certainty that the races are different in character and ability and that the fundamental sources of social disorder are people who seem different from us. The "other" is threatening.

A line that struck me in the New York times report today was a statement by the head of the party, Jeff Schoep. Speaking to a crowd in New Jersey he said, “The government tells us we’re in recovery. Well yeah, if you’re a fat cat on Wall Street, if you’re some greedy Jew running a bank that got a whole bunch of kickbacks, maybe it is better. But not for us.” Fat cats, Wall Street, bankers, Jews – these "greedy" people are the reason ordinary people can't make it. The National Socialist Party is mouthing the same nonsense of generations past: why does it resonate with anyone today?

Clues exist for why anyone would take extreme measures, and so why some racist notions might resonate. The Guardian says that the domestic situation of this family was fraught with conflict and disorder, creating the “troubled” young man that killed his father.

[He] spent his early years hungry and living in squalor while his parents went through a divorce that included accusations of child abuse from both parties. … The child was removed from his mother Leticia Neal's home as a two-year-old, along with two siblings and two-step siblings. Social workers had reported that the children were often filthy and hungry, left in a house with no electricity or gas with maggots crawling on dishes and curdled milk in the babies' bottles. He was sent to live with his grandmother, because his father was on three three years' probation for drink driving. His father was eventually granted full custody in 2004.
The only relevance of this tragic story for a social scientist is what it intimates about how people behave when their world is a kilter. Jeff Hall and his first wife and his son were dealing with a world out of control, for which they appear to have been poorly equipped. We wonder how many people are similarly frustrated because they live in circumstances beyond their control and beyond their understanding. In such moments it is common for us to seek someone to blame, and thus someone to attack. In this case, for Jeff Hall object of attack was non-whites; for his son it was Jeff himself.

We live in a time when many are anxious about a fragile world economy, the American economy being a key part of it of course. What if the gridlock of congress fails to confront the real situation and the economy really turns down? [I know this might seem like an ugly unlikely scenario to some, but given what we have seen in Washington, what can we honestly look forward to?] In such a case, how would a collapsing economy look like in American society?

We have already seen how readily our political leaders use stressful situations to feed on people’s worst fears. Note how eagerly Donald Trump, wanting to be president, hunts for every possible excuse to define President Barak Obama as “the other.” He has fed the fears of those who claim that Obama is lying about his birth, about his faith, about his true intentions. Obama is the son of a Muslim father, of an African, educated in a Muslim society [4th grade]; he could even be a Black Muslim; he’s a socialist, even a communist. The only community in which such deniable insinuations of “the other” could catch hold is one under stress.

Thankfully, that is not America as it exists today. For the moment, Trump seems only to be pathetic figure: unsatisfied with wealth and fame, he still craves a source of respect. I pray that the kinds of devices he has used, deniable insinuations of race, will never again resonate in American society. And I pray for the Hall family, reeling now from yet another tragedy.

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