Part I: The Lurker Below
Last week Jerry Klein, a D.C. area radio talk-show host, decided to scrape below the surface of the right-wing brouhaha over the so-called "flying Imams" -- six Muslim clerics asked to deplane from a U.S. Airways flight, a case touted by everyone from David Frum to Michelle Malkin to Powerline to Pajamas Media.
Klein took this kind of talk the next logical step -- that is, by calling on his radio show for requiring all Muslims wear crescent-moon armbands, or perhaps even tatooing or branding them. The response was disturbing, to say the least:
- The first caller to the station in Washington said that Klein must be "off his rocker." The second congratulated him and added: "Not only do you tattoo them in the middle of their forehead but you ship them out of this country ... they are here to kill us."
Another said that tattoos, armbands and other identifying markers such as crescent marks on driver's licenses, passports and birth certificates did not go far enough. "What good is identifying them?" he asked. "You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans."
At the end of the one-hour show, rich with arguments on why visual identification of "the threat in our midst" would alleviate the public's fears, Klein revealed that he had staged a hoax. It drew out reactions that are not uncommon in post-9/11 America.
"I can't believe any of you are sick enough to have agreed for one second with anything I said," he told his audience on the AM station 630 WMAL (http://www.wmal.com/), which covers Washington, Northern Virginia and Maryland
"For me to suggest to tattoo marks on people's bodies, have them wear armbands, put a crescent moon on their driver's license on their passport or birth certificate is disgusting. It's beyond disgusting.
"Because basically what you just did was show me how the German people allowed what happened to the Jews to happen ... We need to separate them, we need to tattoo their arms, we need to make them wear the yellow Star of David, we need to put them in concentration camps, we basically just need to kill them all because they are dangerous."
(Crooks and Liars has the video. at DKos has more.)
Satire done well has that ability to slice open and expose the darker aspects of our collective psyches. The film Borat is all about using similar tactics -- pretending to be a bigot as a way of getting certain segments of the American populace to drop their defenses and show their honest bigotry:
- In one scene, Borat sings a song that was commonly called Throw the Jew Down the Well, which incited hatred to Jews as the cause of all of Kazakhstan's problems. The song was wildly supported and cheered when it is played in a bar. Another Borat scene involves his visiting the Serengeti Range ranch in Texas, where the owner of the ranch reveals himself to be so anti-Semitic as to believe that Hitler's 'Final Solution' was a necessity for Germany. He further implies (with the egging on of Borat) that he would have no problem running a ranch where people can hunt, in Borat's words, "deer... then Jew."
Some of the noteworthy characters to appear in the film were Justin Seay and his frat brothers, whose bigotry spewed all over the carpet:
- In the movie Seay and his Chi Psi colleagues encounter Borat in the southwestern United States, where they pick up a "hitchhiking" Borat and proceed to consume what appears to be large amounts of alcohol with Borat. Borat encourages the group to discuss slavery and their desire for slavery to return to the U.S. During this discussion, Seay is quoted as saying, "In our country, the minorities actually have more power."
Well, as Logan Pearsall Smith put it: "How it infuriates a bigot when he is forced to drag out his dark convictions." Seay and his brothers have sued the makers of Borat. One of Borat's victims, James Broadwater -- a onetime Republican candidate for Congress who opined that Jews were going to hell -- responded angrily by saying his supposed victimization by the stunt "is just one more reason why I believe that the liberal, anti-God media needs to be brought under the strict control of the FCC, and that as soon as possible."
Borat also inspired a wave of less-than-persuasive defensiveness from the likes of Charles Krauthammer, whose airbrushed version of history seems to hold that Jews' relationships with America is definable solely in terms of U.S. support for Israel. This sole fact evidently obliterates a history of latent and sometimes express anti-Semitism in America, as well as the continuing existence of a substantial chunk of the populace that is either anti-Semitic or believes anti-Semitic nonsense.
This is the naked bigotry revealed by both Klein's and Borat's stunts, and it has a particular quality to it -- a theme running through it, as it were: eliminationism.
White frat boys who long to enslave blacks, Texas ranchers who think hunting and shooting a Jew sounds like fun, and radio audiences who want to tattoo Muslims and lock them up in concentration camps -- they all reflect the strands of the hard-wired right-wing desire to eliminate, by violent means if necessary, anyone deemed the Other, or the Enemy.
Certainly Muslims and Jews are among the leading targets of this kind of talk. Jews -- despite Krauthammer's historically soft-focused version of things -- were national scapegoats for many years (the grim tale of Leo Frank being the most vivid reminder) and a cause celebre for leading American figures, including Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Charles Coughlin. They remain a grim focus of the radical right's hatred even today; the world's leading exponent of anti-Semitism, David Duke, has recently made headlines by making speaking appearances in Kyiv and in Urkaine. Meanwhile, as Bernd Debusmann report for Reuters went on to explore, there is also a now thoroughly concocted fear of Muslims abroad in the American public:
- Those in agreement are not a fringe minority: A Gallup poll this summer of more than 1,000 Americans showed that 39 percent were in favor of requiring Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to carry special identification.
Roughly a quarter of those polled said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim and a third thought that Muslims in the United States sympathized with al Qaeda, the extremist group behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
It isn't only Muslims and Jews who are being included in this kind of talk. Probably the leading targets of hateful rhetoric in the past year have been illegal immigrants. But the range of targets is fairly broad, and now includes gays and lesbians; environmentalists; civil-rights advocates; journalists; and the most common target of the past decade, liberals generally.
The first real uptick in this rhetoric was associated with the initial liberal resistance to the invasion of Iraq, which produced a real flood of elimination talk from the rabid American right, including such leading pundits as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.
Today, the right's rose-petaled enterprise has turned to shit, just as the "treasonous" bastards warned them it would -- so of course, those same bastards are now to blame. This is the way it always works for the right, the people of the party of responsibility, who seem unable to accept any responsibility whatsoever for the disasters created at their own express behest, and instead blame those with the foresight to warn against them beforehand.
Confronted with their own moral vacuity, the more rabid elements are nothing short of furious in their frantic scramble to obfuscate reality. Chief among their targets as the Iraq fiasco has crumbled has been the media for its reporting on the unfolding disaster. The result has been hate talk aimed at war critics and journalists, such as this:
- So, in the school of what's good for the goose is good for the gander, we are providing this link so YOU may help the blogosphere in locating the homes (perhaps with photos?) of the editors and reporters of the New York Times.
Let's start with the following New York Times reporters and editors: Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. , Bill Keller, Eric Lichtblau, and James Risen. Do you have an idea where they live?
Go hunt them down and do America a favor. Get their photo, street address, where their kids go to school, anything you can dig up, and send it to the link above. This is your chance to be famous -- grab for the golden ring.
While it may seem as though this rising drumbeat of eliminationism proceeding from the American right is something new and uniquely dangerous, a look at our history actually reveals that it is something buried deep in our national psyche. It lies dormant in our soil and comes bursting forth when bidden.
What distinguishes eliminationism -- and particularly the rhetoric that precedes it and fuels it -- is that it represents a kind of self-hatred, especially in an American culture which advertises itself as predicated on inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and equal opportunity, since it runs precisely counter to those ideals. Eliminationists, at heart, really hate the very idea of America.
It has its origins, like slavery and war, in some of man's most ancient and most savage impulses: the desire to dominate others, through violence if necessary. However, in contrast, it goes largely unnoticed and largely unexamined, perhaps because it is a side of human nature so ugly we prefer not even to recognize its existence. So much so that only recently have we even had a term like "eliminationism" with which to frame it.
As I've explained, the term's first significant use came from historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial text, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen never provides a concise definition of the word, but rather constructs a massively detailed description of the eliminationist mindset.
Goldhagen's focus, however, is almost solely the Holocaust and the virulently antisemitic form that took root in Europe prior to the Second World War. But as a principle, we can see eliminationism playing a role in human history through the ages -- including its special role in American history and the shaping of American culture, right up to the present day.
I've tried to give a more concise definition previously:
- What, really, is eliminationism?
It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.
... Rhetorically, it takes on some distinctive shapes. It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself -- unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and loves to incessantly suggest that its targets are themselves disease carriers. A close corollary -- but not as nakedly eliminationist -- are claims that the opponents are traitors or criminals, or gross liabilities for our national security, and thus inherently fit for elimination or at least incarceration.
And yes, it's often voiced as crude "jokes", the humor of which, when analyzed, is inevitably predicated on a venomous hatred.
But what we also know about this rhetoric is that, as surely as night follows day, this kind of talk eventually begets action, with inevitably tragic results.
What distinguishes eliminationist rhetoric from other political hyperbole, in the end, are two key factors:
- -- It is focused on an enemy within, people who constitute entire blocs of the citizen populace, and
--It advocates the excision and extermination, by violent means or civil, of those entire blocs.
As Jerry Klein found, those impulses lie not very far beneath the skin of American civil society. In fact, as we will explore here, they are deeply woven into our very makeup, and can be found as deep strands running and twining through our history: the genocide against the Indians, the "lynching era" and the Ku Klux Klan, the internment of Japanese Americans, the continuing shameful legacy of hate crimes in modern America.
Eliminationism all began, of course, long before there was even an America. But the roots of America's history are bathed in the blood of an eliminationist impulse imported from Europe -- and we have never quite outgrown that legacy.
Next: The Urge to Eliminate