Thursday, October 28, 2004

Shrill and creepy

I expected, when I undertook the work of documenting the interaction between the extremist right and mainstream conservatism -- particularly in such pieces as "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism" -- to have to deal not only with a lot of utter noncomprehension from the right, but also some vicious personal attacks. I just didn't expect it to be so ... half-assed.

Dean Esmay weighed in this week with a genuinely nasty little hit piece. Once you wade through the ad hominem, the attack comes down to this:
Back in May, a really creepy obsessive named Dave Neiwert, well known for lunatic fringe conspiracy theories, decided to identify your host (Dean Esmay) as a secret Nazi sympathizer. Or at least a fascist at heart, though my dark desires are hidden to anyone but clever brave scribblers such as the brilliant Dave Niewert, anyway.

Now, you'll notice that Esmay doesn't link anywhere to my site or to the post in question. (Nor did he, in lieu of that, extend the basic courtesy of notifying me of the attack; this is why I wasn't even aware of it until Wednesday afternoon.) Ostensibly this is because I'm such a reprehensible wretch he doesn't want to give me the hits.

I think there's another reason as well: He doesn't want his blithering idiocy immediately apparent. Because anyone actually reading what I wrote can see that Esmay's characterization is simply false -- a shrill overreaction to a relatively mild observation.

Now, here in its entirety is the post in question:
Remember Dolchstosslegende -- the Legend of the Stab in the Back?

It was one of the cornerstone myths of the Nazis, fueling both their rise to power, as well their justification for the Holocaust. The "stab in the back" of the German military in World War I -- and thus the source of German defeat -- you see, was a product of Communists and Jews.

Well, now that the invasion of Iraq is turning out not so well, we're getting a fresh version of the legend, tailored for the 21st century (Josh Marshall noticed it being trotted out awhile back).

Dean Esmay rather approvingly provides us with a recent example.

Now, you may read through this post a hundred times, and I don't think you'll find a anywhere a statement that I think Esmay harbors secret Nazi sympathies. For that matter, I don't even imply it.

Here's how Esmay puts it:
I once posted a cartoon that made a strong political statement about the hate-soaked left, and Niewert concluded that if anything looks like anything the Nazis ever put out, well, you do the math, right?

Now, is there anything in that post telling people to "do the math"? No. Anything in there saying, "This suggests Esmay has Nazi sympathies"? No.

What I clearly am saying is something that fits in with my larger thesis in pieces like "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism": Memes from the far right -- some of them with deep historical roots, like this one -- not only continue to have a half-life in modern society, they have been finding their way into mainstream conservatism in recent years.

Many of them appear almost unconsciously, out of the zeitgeist, the environment created by the shifts in the political framework that make society more receptive to these ideas. Many are boosted by the increasing interactions of mainstream conservatives with extremist belief systems. "Transmitters" -- figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter -- play key roles in bridging the two sectors by picking up extremist ideas and agendas and clothing them in rhetoric suitable for mainstream consumption. Regardless of the mechanism, ordinary conservatives then pick them up and run with them, often utterly oblivious about the origins of the ideas they're absorbing and then promoting.

Esmay, I think it's clear, falls well into this latter category. And nothing in the post even suggests otherwise.

The logic (or lack thereof) by which Esmay reached his absurd conclusion is roughly the same as that deployed by Glenn Reynolds when he accused me of "hurling unsubstantiated charges of racism" for tweaking his work thus: "the root of all evil in Reynoldsland are the twin threads of dark-skinned Muslims and left-wing antiwar liberals."

Now, regular readers are well aware that one of my recurring themes -- so much so that I sound like a stuck record, in fact -- is the fact that Americans generically, and the media/pundit class particularly, have a peculiar blind spot when it comes to terrorism. When they're white right-wing extremist Christians, they're just "aberrations" and "isolated incidents." When it's committed by brown-skinned foreigners of another religion, we declare a "war on terror."

This point, in fact, was made in the very first post on this blog, and I've repeated it so often it's gotten a little old: I've made it here, here, here, here, and here (for a quick sample). I've also discussed it in depth on several occasions, notably here.

The poke at Reynolds was clearly written within that context. All it says is that Reynolds shares the same blind spot when it comes to terrorism.

Indeed, I think that couldn't be more clear than in the Reynolds post that I cited in the post he attacked. In it, he says this:
One thing that's troubling is the potential for cooperation between Arab terrorists and domestic extremists.

Anyone who knows the rudimentary facts about Islamist extremism knows immediately that this is a false and narrow racial stereotype. Al Qaeda-style extremism includes not only Arabs, but also Persians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Indonesians, and a wide range of other races.

Now, Reynolds does have a better case than Esmay for his complaint if you remove the remark from this context. But even then, at the worst, all one can definitively say is that I slyly imply that Reynolds partakes of and proliferates racist stereotypes.

And that simply does not, in my book, constitute racism. Racism, as I've explained in depth previously, entails an eliminationist contempt for other races, and always promotes exclusion and bigoted discrimination. Wallowing in racial stereotypes is endemic across all of society, and while it's problematic, it is not "racist" per se.

No, as I've pointed out before, when I think of someone "hurling unsubstantiated charges of racism," I think of prominent bloggers who call a campus Latino-pride group best known for holding bakes sales and voter-registration drives "fascist hatemongers", "racist and homophobic," and comparing them to Jim Crow and (in the case of another renowned conservative pundit) the Ku Klux Klan.

But maybe that's just me.

Now, as for the rest of Esmay's screed, I'm not going to waste too much of my time or yours rebutting this kind of nonsense. Suffice to say that, having examined and debunked hundreds of conspiracy theories in the process of reporting on the militia movement and writing In God's Country, I know enough about them to tell you that Esmay hasn't the slightest idea what he's talking about. (And yes, I've debunked many Larouchite conspiracy theories.)

For a sample of a more sensible approach to conspiracy theories, see my previous discussion of them. Moreover, there's simply nothing in any of the material that Esmay references (obliquely) that even suggests I think an actual conspiracy is at work here, particularly in the spread of right-wing extremism into the mainstream. It couldn't be more clear, I think, that I'm arguing on the side of a larger political dynamic that has nothing to do with conspiracy.

Oh, and Dean? The next time you want to devote 1,160 words to an ad hominem attack on someone, it really helps if you spell their name right.

Now, in somewhat better faith (and certainly more honest, not to mention competent) have been the critiques from Eric at Classical Values, especially his most recent entry. But it's hard to take this commentary seriously when it's clear he can't even distinguish between my ideas and those of Robert O. Paxton, or even acknowledge that the entirety of the ideas I'm basing my analysis upon is drawn from serious scholars of fascism. As anyone who's actually taken the time to read my work knows, I'm not drawing these ideas out of thin air. Moreover, he simply dismisses the heart of Paxton's thesis (that fascism is better understood as a set of "mobilizing passions" than as an "ism") without explanation. There's simply no substance to Eric's critique to address.

Well, as I said, I did expect to inspire a reaction from the right based on a simple failure of reading comprehension, or a lack of reading altogether. That's easy to predict, considering that the right has a well-established track record of distortion based on misrepresentation and non-comprehension. And my personal experience has been that they decline to read or comprehend simply because they don't want to.

But that's the thing about fascism. We tend to think of it in terms of alien things like Nazi uniforms and concentration camps. The reality is that the popular of imagery of fascism (as Paxton's work details) is actually derived from its later stages, when it proceeds into serious metastasis; while in the stages at which it has traditionally obtained power, fascism is constituted of things which seem everyday and familiar to us. It's when they come together in a particular constellation of political pathology that they take on a life of their own. But we often refuse to recognize it for what it is because it seems so ... familiar.

Not that I expect an intellectual titan like Dean Esmay to take the time to figure that out. It's so much easier to shriek, distort and falsify. That's the right-wing style of argument nowadays. And coming from someone who insists, no, demands, despite a remarkable paucity of evidence, that he really is a liberal, dammit, it frankly is kinda ... creepy.

[Update: Speaking of creepy: One of Esmay's admirers seems to be urging him to punch me. Or at least "come this close" to doing so. Or is it just a Larouchite? But then, he and Esmay seem to think I am a Larouchite, right? Hard to tell, because this is of course just idiocy.]

[Update II, to Infinity and Beyond: Dean Esmay writes back, in his best Buzz Lightyear (pre-awareness phase) imitation:
Utterly hilarious.

You are a sad, strange little man. You have my pity. Farewell!


Well hey. I'm convinced!]

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