Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Black Volgas, White Vans, Donald Trump, and why legends matter

The sinister black Volga, now a "classic car"
A few weeks ago I was in Tallinn, Estonia, to attend the annual meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. (The term "contemporary legend" is folklorist-speak for what most people call an "urban legend.")

It was my first time attending the ISCLR, though I've been a longtime fan of the work that legend scholars do. It was also my first international conference, and the first time I'd been to a conference small enough for everyone to hear everyone else's presentation. And let me tell you: it's a conference that rewards hearing every paper, because what's most intriguing are the connections between the legends that people are studying, despite being from such different places.

A couple of notable examples:

  • Anna Kirzyuk of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration gave a fantastic talk about rumors and legends about mysterious black cars--Volgas, specifically--that are alleged to drive around kidnapping children. During the Soviet era, the kidnappers were government agents, linking the stories with the real-life disappearance of people arrested during the Stalinist era. Contemporarily, the kidnappers are rich foreigners--most often Americans--stealing children to harvest their organs. Many of the conference attendees from former Soviet states--Poland, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine--had heard this same story.
  • In the Netherlands, according to Peter Burger of Leiden University, it's a white van, not a black Volga, but the story is essentially the same: strangers in white vans cruise around looking for children to abduct. In the Netherlands, the identity of the perpetrators has shifted in recent years, from generic pedophiles (who presumably were Dutch) to Eastern European immigrants, and Polish workers in particular. 

This anti-Polish sentiment isn't unique to the Netherlands--in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the European Union, which happened just days before the ISCLR conference started, there were reports of attacks on Polish immigrants in England, as well.

And if you read the Guardian article, you might also note the rhetoric of the hate speech against Poles, describing them as "Polish vermin," and remember how effectively the Nazis used the very same rhetoric to stoke German hatred of Jews in the film The Eternal Jew, which depicted Jewish people as rats (and later influenced Art Speigelman's decision to depict Jews as mice in his graphic memoir Maus).  

I could go on and on about the other legends people discussed that tread the same themes, blaming foreigners, immigrants, people of color, gypsies, and other minorities for heinous, fictional acts. But at heart, they're all related to one much older legend, the blood libel legend. As the Anti-Defamation League's website summarizes it, the blood libel legend is "a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians--especially Christian children--to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah."

This is a story that's been in circulation since the 12th century, folks. 

As a folklorist, I shouldn't be surprised to discover that people in many different places, speaking many different languages, are telling essentially the same story. But what was stunning to me was how so many of the legends discussed at the conference function to put the blame for one's own problems onto an "Other," and how disturbingly easy it is to substitute the cultural demon-of-choice into a narrative to create a dramatic, dangerous weapon against an entire group of people.  

Given the demonizing of Muslims, Latinos, and African Americans that's been so rampant in the U. S. recently, it was fascinating--and sickening--to realize that the impulse to scapegoat "Others" is so widespread.

So when Donald Trump tries to tell you that "Mexicans" are the ones committing rapes and murders,  and that American Muslims ought to be on a registry since they're all on the verge of becoming terrorists, I beg you to think globally and act locally. This isn't a story that's unique to him, but rather a terrible fiction with very real consequences.