Ann Petrila “Nationalism: A Local and Global Dangerous Game”

Good morning.  I am honored to be here presenting to your esteemed association, Krug99.  I would like to thank Professor Kulenović for this invitation. I apologize that I cannot deliver this lecture in Bosnian.  Hopefully someday I will be able to do that but that time has certainly not come yet.

I have had the opportunity to come to Bosnia since 2007 and for the past 8 years I have brought graduate students here for the summer as part of my work at the University of Denver in Colorado.  Over 150 masters students from various faculties have had the opportunity to do internships and to learn from the gracious and generous people of your country and for that I am always grateful.  There are many, many things to be learned from Bosnia, including the importance of focusing on relationships, the importance of generosity, of sharing and of laughing.  Coming from Colorado I appreciate natural beauty more than most and the beauty of your country is a well-kept secret.  People in Bosnia are the most resilient people I have ever met.

There is unfortunately another side of things that needs to be learned from Bosnia.  The dynamics that contributed to the war and the genocide, the role of propaganda, media control, hate-based speech and nationalistic fervor are unfortunately present in many parts of the world with increasing prevalence.  The United States, which has historically provided a leadership role in advocating for human rights and democratic principles, is now heading down a path that should be all too familiar to people in Bosnia.  We are becoming an even more divided society as the tensions, prejudices and hatred that have been simmering for a long time now have an official voice in the White House and parts of the U.S. Congress.

The 2 party system in the U.S. has in many ways broken down.  The Republican party has become complicit in nationalistic policies and efforts to dismantle most of what President Obama put into place.  The focus is on taking away rights from groups of people, demonizing them with false statements, and subscribing to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan which is nothing but divisive.  What the slogan really means is a desire for an America that is made up only of people of Western European descent, white and Christian. 

Stanton’s 10 stages of genocide are most likely very familiar to all of you and in looking at what is happening in the U.S. right now, you will recognize some unfortunate circumstances.  We have a president who fosters an “us vs. them” environment on an almost daily basis. Through his rhetoric, attempts at media control and inciting groups of people at his rallies he is setting up a dangerous environment.  Never have hate groups felt so free to pronounce their beliefs and act upon them.  In an effort to dehumanize the “others”, who are basically non-whites and non-Christians, he calls them animals, breeders, and infesters.  He has referred to African countries as “shitholes” and has publicly pronounced his encouragement of physical violence against those who disagree with him or challenge his policies.  Mass deportation is occurring among identified groups of people and of course, there is his famous campaign promise to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. 

Extreme policies of deportation, bans on certain groups of people, increased fervor around gun ownership, and inciting crowds to violence are some of the president’s favorite techniques.

There is an organized effort to suppress the free press by banning certain news agencies from events and press conferences.  Any article that is published that is against administrative policies and/or reports situations, actions, or statements by the president that he does not like he immediately labels them fake news.  This has become a rallying cry for dictators around the world and 21 journalists have been imprisoned on charges of “fake news”. While the U.S. does not an official state television station or radio station, Fox News is a popular TV station which basically serves as state-controlled media and there are a number of radio stations that do the same.  In recent weeks the most principled journalists and commentators who work for Fox News have finally started reporting factual news vs. pure propaganda and some high profile reporters have left the station in protest.  This situation of separating thousands of children from their parents at the southern border seems to have finally been a line that should not have been crossed.

Prior to the separating of children from their parents at the southern border, there has seemed to be no line that could be crossed.  The line keeps moving.  I am reminded of the situation in Bosnia when the aggressors would make a move waiting to see what the international community would do.  When there was no objection then they tried a few more things until ultimately all was lost.  Keep pushing the limits and when there aren’t consequences, then push a little more. 

The same is true in the states right now.  There are so many egregious and salacious things happening that even reasonable people have trouble figuring out where the line is that shouldn’t be crossed.  We have in some ways become numb to outrageous statements and events which is in itself very dangerous for the most vulnerable members of society.  What passes for civil discourse and behaviors befitting of civil society has completely changed.  This in one of the most powerful countries in the world who, because of this power, has the responsibility for being the champion of democratic principles and human rights.  There is a crisis several times per day.  Since I have been in Bosnia during the past 2 weeks, the U.S.  has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, which is problematic both literally and symbolically. 

As of today there have been at least 2000 children, some of them babies, separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border.  Crossing the border and seeking asylum is a legal process.  Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” has resulted in these children being taken from their parents, put into former large stores or barracks, some kept in literal cages, and some being put on planes alone and flown to other parts of the country.  Two major U.S. airlines are now refusing to honor the tickets for these unaccompanied minors and at least 11 states have pulled their national guard troops from the border in defiance of the administration’s current policies. 

When the president intensified his rhetoric calling people subhuman, comparing them to animals, etc. I wrote a guest commentary for the Denver Post, Colorado’s largest and most prestigious newspaper, sounding a warning about the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric, and our moving further down the stages of genocide.  I was surprised that the paper not only published it but saved it for a Sunday which is the most important day for Guest Commentaries to be published.  I mention this because I want to share some of the responses that I received, many of which were positive.  There were, however, responses from people who I do not know telling me that academics know nothing and the terrible things that they think should happen to academics, attacking me personally with language that I will never repeat, threatening me due to my lack of patriotism and loyalty to the president.  It was these last emails that I received which were the most troubling to me.  A violent, threatening tone of gross insults because I am an academic and because I disagree with the president?.  That is not a democracy.

It is Ironic that U.S. was founded by immigrants.  The only people who are not immigrants are the Native Americans and they were the victims of the first American genocide. 

There are currently 954 Hate Groups in the U.S. and since the presidential election, hate crimes  have reached a 5 year high according to the FBI. 

What is a Hate Group?

  • An organization that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics
  • These organizations vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity
  • A “group” is an entity that has a process through which followers identify themselves as being part of the group… donating, paying membership dues or participating in activities such as meetings and rallies

Examples of Hate Groups within the U.S. include:

  • Neo Nazi (121 groups)—hatred for Jews and love for Hitler
  • Anti-Immigrant (22 groups)
  • White Nationalists (100 groups)—white supremacy ideology
  • Ku Klux Klan (72 groups)—anti blacks
  • Racist Skinhead (71 groups)– A particularly violent element of the White Supremacist Movement
  • Neo-Confederates (31 groups)—a white nationalist group using symbols from the Confederacy, particularly the Confederate flag which is a pro-slavery, anti-black symbol
  • Anti-LGBT (51 groups)—opposition to LGBT rights and demonizing LGBT individuals
  • Anti-Muslim (114 groups)
  • Holocaust Denial (10 groups)

White Nationalists Running for Office

  • More white nationalists running for office than in any other election in recent memory
  • At least 8 white nationalists running for state or federal office around the country
  • Platforms and other beliefs:
  • Segregating neighborhoods in their community
  • Anti-Semitism & Holocaust denial
  • Dismay at white people becoming the minority
  • Pride and dignity for whites

What is a Hate Crime?

  • A criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.

The ensuing 12 months post-September 11th  was the high mark for anti-Muslim hate crimes within the U.S. The number of hate crimes against Muslim communities during 2016 and 2017 rivals that seen in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. During 2016, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 38 percent.  There is a concerning rise in hate crimes in progressive states like California & New York.

Nationalistic quotes by President Trump:

He has called the California sanctuary laws a “ridiculous crime infested and breeding concept”.  Instilling fear about a group of people as “breeders” has also been used throughout history. 

Another common feature of the major human rights violations in history is some type of mass deportation.  Currently in the U.S.  there are numerous groups of people who are either banned from entering the country or who are being systematically detained or deported.  If these groups of people are presented in the media as less-than-human then it is easier for society to become complacent about their deportation or to engage in active hate-based activities against people in these groups.

When he said “these aren’t people, these are animals” he was using the kind of language that has been used throughout history to dehumanize a group of people.  It’s called eliminationist rhetoric which is a policy or belief that a certain group should be expelled or eliminated.  It’s nothing new and it’s always dangerous.  Examples of Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric include:

  • Muslim Ban
    • On 7 December, 2015, Donald Trump calls for a complete shutdown of Muslim entry to the U.S. saying, “Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.”
  • Othering
    • “The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best…They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
  • When referring to several African countries Trump said “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” In response, the Spokeswoman for Africa Ebba Kalondo said, Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice. This is particularly surprising as the United States of America remains a global example of how migration gave birth to a nation built on strong values of diversity and opportunity.“
  • Donald Trump has said that “Democrats want Illegal Immigrants to infest our country”. This statement served 2 purposes.  It painted a picture of Democrats not caring about immigration issues and it dehumanized undocumented immigrants by referring to them as insects that can infest the country.

One of the extremist-related “buzz words” that is frequently heard in the U.S. is the  “Alt Right.”  The term “Alt Right” originated with extremists but increasingly has found its way into the mainstream media.   Alt Right is short for “alternative right.”  This vague term actually encompasses a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy. One of Trumps main advisors was a leader of primary Alt-right organization.  Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and former Chair of Breitbart News which is a far-right syndicated American news, opinion and commentary website, while attending a Front National Rally in France said, “Let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists – wear it as a badge of honor!”.  Across Europe right-wing ideology is spreading, including in Poland and Hungary.  In Serbia, Trump has the support of the infamous Vojislav Seselj.

  • Media/Fake News
    • Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase “fake news” — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented 21 cases in 2017 in which journalists were jailed on “fake news” charges.
  • According to the CPJ, 2017 was one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist. Last year, the organization documented 262 cases  of journalists being imprisoned for their work. Reporters around the world face intimidation, threats of violence, harassment, persecution and sometimes even death as governments resort to brutal censorship to silence the truth
  • Condoning and Encouraging Violence
  • When demonstrators were being escorted out of a rally, Trump bemoaned the fact that there were no longer “consequences” to protesting and insisted the “country has to toughen up.“
  • “You know, part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?“
  • At a rally in NC, a supporter punched a black man in the face. Trump said of violent behavior in general at his events: “The audience hit back and that's what we need a little bit more of.” He also praised people using physical force at his rallies as “appropriate.“

In the time leading up to the election, several prominent politicians voiced their concern about Trump.  The former Governor of US State of Maryland during the election said, “Donald Trump removes all doubt.  He is running for president as a fascist demagogue”

I have been accused of rarely saying positive comments about the president.  That is an accurate criticism.  I will say this, however.  He is a propaganda genius.  He is a master at playing on hatred and fear by lying constantly, and using all of the proven techniques of “othering” by continuing to flame the fires of “us vs. them”. 

In Bosnia, the international community attempted to address many issues, but nationalism was not one of them.  Because of this, nationalism continues to be present and to grow, hindering any type of reconciliation process.  It is an unfortunate irony that the U.S. is now failing to providing leadership in this area and is, in fact, moving down the road of nationalistic fervor at an alarming speed. 

Unlike the situation in the Balkans in the 90’s, there is no one group that has access to the U.S. military to use against its own citizens.  That said, however, situations are becoming much more militarized under this current administration.  Equally frightening is that included in Trump’s base of support is a heavily armed group of people.  As the world knows, and doesn’t understand, all guns, including military-style weapons are easily available for purchase.  The majority of Americans also do not understand this and do not support this, but that topic is for another day. 

What is the resistance to this current rise in nationalism, propaganda, and hate speech?  Most academics are attempting to use their platforms to alert people to the divisive and dangerous role that propaganda and nationalism are playing and to impact policy at the local, state and national level.  Religious leaders are as divided as the rest of society.  Many religious leaders, who are focused on social justice, are appalled at what is happening and are working toward more reasonable policies and attitudes.  Other religious leaders from the alt-right conservative evangelical community are aligned with the current administration and are helping to divide society even further.  This is also a phenomenon that is very familiar to Bosnia.  Journalists are also divided between the liberal and moderate press (labeled Fake News by the president) and the other group that basically serves as state-sponsored journalism.  Human rights groups have been re-energized and are organizing in ways that have not been seen since the 1960’s.  Environmental groups are energized by the administration’s stance on Global Warming, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and consistent deregulation of environmental protection policies .

The good news is that it is as if people in the U.S. have “woken up” and are starting to mobilize peaceful protests, some of the largest in the country’s history.  States are refusing to comply with certain federal policies and, perhaps most effectively, efforts at contradicting propaganda are spring up everywhere along with a massive voter registration campaign and a “get out the vote” effort. Electing people who resist accepting the ideology of “us vs. them” is essential.

The Holocaust was supposed to be Never Again.  When I bring my students to Bosnia we meet with survivors who share their experiences and their stories  in the hope that what happened in Bosnia will never happen again.  Sadly, there is no question that  it could “happen again” and people in the United States need to realize that many of the things that are currently happening are leading to nothing but ongoing human rights violations which must be stopped at all costs. 


Thank you.