Sometimes history send echoes, snatches of words, disquieting fragments of images, that snag at our memories and imaginations. Sometimes those echoes become so clear that we can follow them, and sometimes, if we have the tools and the talent and the time, we can make them public.
That’s what Michael Perlman has done in “The Politics of Hate.”
Michael Perlman, who grew up in Closter, among other local towns — “I’m a real Bergen County boy,” he said — and now lives one county over, in Weehawken — is a documentary filmmaker, driven like so many in his field, by a strong sense of social justice.
Mr. Perlman has a production company, World2Be Productions, and a few years ago he plunged into a film about the Holocaust. It’s the story of three siblings, the survivors of a family of nine children, and particularly about a sister and her younger brother, who escaped the ghetto, found their way to Russia, and ended up in a Siberian gulag; they survived that Arctic torture and the brother still lives in Israel, for which he had fought when he was young and it still was Palestine.
“We were in the midst of post-production making this film — we hope it will be released next year — but so many things that were happening around the world were echoing and paralleling it,” Mr. Perlman said. “So much that is happening in the world is echoing what happened in the 1930s and 40s. We see how people were divided, and how the fear of the other was promoted, and it was turned into hatred of the other.
“That’s what we saw in the Holocaust. It is happening here, and in Europe, and in many places around the world.
“We cannot believe the times we are living in and, at this moment, we think it is more pressing to tell the story of our times.”
“The Politics of Hate” starts with footage from the 1930s and 40s; as often as we might have seen some of these shots, still they are hard to look at. Strikingly, and pointedly, the clips include some film taken right after the war, in Germany; local residents were forced to walk by stacks of corpses. Some of the villagers keep talking to each other, some look away from the bodies, some look down at the ground, some are horrified, some are terrified, some are unmoved.
Mr. Perlman is not going for facile comparisons. He is not saying that the United States in 2018 (or 2017, when “Politics of Hate” first was released) is Germany in the late 1930s. He is saying, however, that the anti-Semitic lies that led to the Holocaust are the lies we can hear now.
This documentary is being released on television and streaming media in commemoration of the first anniversary of the tiki-torchlit racist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., that led to the death of Heather Heyer and the wounding — by car and by fist and by gang — of at least 33 others.
He also is not without hope. “As bleak as things might look to people who care about equality and diversity and inclusion, if you look at the historical framework, you will see that about 100 years ago there was great progress, and then there was a backlash, and ultimately that led to a better future.”
That is a cycle that repeats, he said. “In the United States, we had a big rise in fascism in the 1920s and ’30s. There were about 20,000 people at the big German American Bund meeting at Madison Square Garden in 1939, with people yelling Heil Hitler and denouncing anyone who was different from them, particularly Jews.” There is footage of that chilling rally in “Politics of Hate,” along with clips of the notorious anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin, who shoveled hatred over America’s radio frequencies in the ’30s. “They spewed the same lies that are being spewed today,” Mr. Perlman said. “That Jews control the media, that Jews control the money, that Jews pull the strings that control minorities, to get them to do their bidding.”
“But there was great progress that led to that backlash — women got the right to vote, races mixed it up together for the first time in the speakeasies, there was jazz… That progress led to the backlash, yes, but also the backlash to the backlash led to more progress, he suggested, although of course the cost was far too dear.
The hate all over the American airwaves in the 1930s made its way to Europe, which already had plenty of its own.
“There was interconnectedness between fascism here, in the United States, and in Europe,” Mr. Perlman said. “Hitler promoted Henry Ford to be the next president of the United States. And Henry Ford’s horrible book” — that was “The International Jew,” a prime piece of anti-Semitic garbage that Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which had a huge circulation, serialized and reprinted. “Hitler used that book as part of the Nazi platform,” he added.
This might not be ancient history, but it’s way in our rearview mirrors by now, right?
Um, no. If only…
“Look how entwined they are today,” Mr. Perlman said. “It’s startling.
“When you see Steven Bannon and Breitbart creating connections between the far right here and in Europe, when you see Trump actively retweeting fascists in Britain, you see remarkable similarities between now and then,” he continued. “Hitler wanted only one reality, so he created that reality. He attacked the press for not writing about his reality.
“Hitler was democratically elected,” he pointed out. “There were people who voted for him who didn’t believe that he would really do the things he said that he would do. There were even Jews who voted for Hitler. They believed that he would be good for the economy. And at first he was. He did a major public works program.
“But whenever anything went wrong, he always blamed the other for it. Obviously he blamed Jews — he also blamed gypsies, gay people, union workers. He destroyed the unions.
“I saw parallels, and they became so upsetting,” Mr. Perlman said.
Some of this is directly due to President Donald Trump, Mr. Perlman asserted. “He attacks the press. It’s an active part of the way he operates. It’s fascinating. Leslie Stahl, the ‘60 Minutes’ journalist, asked him why he does that, why he attacks the press so much, and he said, ‘As long as enough people doubt the facts, that will help me.’ That is really a very systematic undermining of the basic fabric of democracy.”
“It has unleashed so much anti-Semitism,” he continued. “We have seen huge increases in hate crimes against Jews, as well as against Muslims and other minorities. It’s been unleashed, and it’s very dangerous.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have gone up by 57 percent from 2016 to 2017.)
Mr. Perlman thinks that Mr. Trump’s presidency is a direct response to the presidency of Barack Obama, a biracial politician who ushered in an era of relatively progressive social change. (He is not alone in that belief; many social scientists and other observers believe it to be true as well.) “More and more people have been mixing it up again,” Mr. Perlman said. “There have been more mixed marriages across the races. There is same-sex marriage. More people have been included in society.” Mr. Trump’s win was the backlash; the pendulum will swing once again.
“One of the big reasons we wanted to make this film was to use it as a catalyst to ignite discussion among different groups,” he said. “We are all on the same side. We all want equality and diversity. There is no reason why Jews should want to discriminate against any other groups. We are all under assault right now, and we should all come together.”
“The Politics of Hate” includes many riveting film clips, but perhaps the most astonishing element in it, threaded through the rest of the narrative, is the unfolding-a-bit-at-a-time story of Christian Picciolini, the gaudily tattooed, soft-spoken, obviously charismatic former white nationalist leader who has gone on to tell his story as a cautionary tale, and to work to help fix the great harm he’s done. It also includes commentary from Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and from Mehnaz Afridi, the director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in the Bronx.
Mr. Perlman first met Mr. Picciolini at an ADL meeting; Mr. Picciolini founded a group called Life After Hate, a nonprofit that works to reclaim haters.
“The Politics of Hate” looks at “the big historical arc, and then a very personal arc,” Mr. Perlman said. “Christian represents the personal arc. He has taken his time. He has come a very long way.
“He was a kid from Illinois, a vulnerable 14-year-old” — in fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, frequently bullied, never quite fitting in — “who became a white supremacist, an American Nazi leader. He got into it because he was looking for some acceptance, and ultimately for love. Like we all are. Everyone is looking for love and acceptance.
“But he got his through a neo-Nazi white supremacist who pulled him in, who said to him, ‘Look, we are here for you. We want to protect you and your people. And now and then we have to go out and eliminate someone.’ So Christian became a terrible racist, and an anti-Semite, even though he had never knowingly met a Jew.
“And he put together a white power band, and continued on for years. He committed violent acts, and he persuaded others to embrace hatred and violence. He talks in the film about how people write to him from jail — murderers write to him — thanking him for the ideology he introduced to them.
He is haunted by that.”
Mr. Picciolini’s life turned around a bit at a time. He fell in love with a young woman who loved him but hated his ideology. He had two children, and looked at them, he said, and realized the difference between love and hate, and the evil of living with hate and a baby at the same time. He left the hate world gradually; he opened a record store (Mr. Picciolini is in his mid 40s, and this was in the 90s, when such brick-and-mortar places to sell physical recordings still were possible) to sell white power music, but soon learned that he was aiming at a very limited market. Once he started selling outside-world music, he met black people and Jews and Latinos and others he had been taught to hate, and he could no longer hate them. He could no longer hate. “Once he came to realize that, he thought that he had to do something else, that there are other ways to find acceptance without hurting other people,” Mr. Perlman said.
Mr. Picciolini’s story might or might not be typical. Certainly, he is not an ordinary person. But he was so filled with hate, and he is so given over now to combatting it, that his existence makes teshuva — repentance, turning from the bad to the good — seem possible. “It’s powerful to see an individual be able to transform himself,” Mr. Perlman said. “We are showing how a society can transform at the same time.
“We can take comfort in history. There have been large mobilizations of people, and that has made a difference. Take women’s rights, civil rights — people have made a real difference.”
As for himself, “I have a 17-month-old,” Mr. Perlman said. “That brings life full circle. This is my baby. This is the future. What kind of world are we going to make for him?”