To St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art to see the much-talked-about exhibition of Ku Klux Klan portraiture by photojournalist, James Edward Bates. For those of you unable to visit the actual exhibition or afraid to stray from the friendly hypertext streets and applet orchards of Internetsville, you can see most of the photographs online in all of their pointy-hatted wonder.
The photographs are mounted upon stark white walls at St Mungo’s, accompanied by very little textual explanation of the events taking place in them. They provide a chilling contrast to the museum’s usual informative, pro-belief rabbis-holding-hands-with-priests-holding-hands-with-imams fare. The exhibit’s guestbook is filled with emotional comments from visitors shocked at the images of children hanging out at cross-burnings or of the uncensored use of racist lingo.
What struck me most about the images, however, was of how domestic and communal the documented Klan events seemed to be. In fact, there is an eerie sense of familiarity to a lot of the scenes: the inexpertly stitched-together costumes and hand-painted signage parallels the efforts of urban hobby cliques such as am-dram groups, Star Trek fan circles or model train enthusiasts. The fact that these people harbour xenophobic and hate-laced beliefs almost takes a back burner to the sense of community they’ve created around it.
Imagine being part of a group, which unite not out of celebration or appreciation of a given entity but of a deep-seated hatred for it.
The fact that the Klan’s adventures in race-hate are so domestic in nature arouses ideas of its being a macrocosmic parable; of how easy it might be without a strong left wing presence for things to get out of control and for the fear of otherness to get the better of otherwise rational people.
There’s also a strange clutching-at-straws vibe to Bates’ photographed topographies: as though these people almost know that their beliefs are moronic and dangerous. It seems as though it is the upkeep of tradition that is important rather than the logic of the ideology. It’s a phenomenon I often detect in casually religious people: they say they have these beliefs but in reality they are riddled with rational doubt. One of the main ‘Imperial Wizards’ of the Klan to feature in Bates’ photographs describes himself not as a racist but as a ‘separatist’; that he doesn’t hate the foreign but rather thinks that the challenges involved in maintaining multiracial communities outweigh the benefits and can be avoided by simple segregation – a moronic and wrong idea but a crack the original ideology. The demonising of black, oriental or Jewish individuals seems to go on a lot in the Klan: as though the reality of things need not be taught to their children but rather a stilted and frightening version of it in order for the tradition to continue in the fashion it has done for so long, like an ideological game of ‘keepie-uppie’.