Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Confronting fascism

My old friend John McKay writes:
This weekend I had an opportunity to hear John D. Keliher, who is the Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Washington. He was speaking on the topic of responding to professional haters (my term, not his). As someone who is familiar with conspiratorial literature and professional haters, you can imagine how hot this topic is among serious Masons. The conspiratorial community is divided as to whether the Masons are tools of the Jews (as stated in the first Protocol of the Elders of Zion) or vice versa.

In short form, his advice for confronting haters was: Don't; they thrive on attention, let them wither away in the darkness. He recounted the story of a brother who called him asking how best to respond to a professional hater who was making a well-supported presentation in his community. Keliher recommended not even attending the presentation. He continued: if you must attend the meeting, remain silent. If you must say something, don't confront him. If you must confront him, don't get personal. If you must get personal, keep my name out of it. Sadly, the brother ignored his advice at all levels.

Unfortunately, Freemasons have their own variety of fundamentalists who feel that all attacks must be vigorously combated, regardless of the tactical harm it does. This is the essence of our problem.

I think that the natural follow-up to your fascism series would be some thoughts on effective ways to combat this ugly trend in America. Too many liberals tend to conduct political discourse in the same old shrill and ineffective tones. In Seattle, the usual idiots rush out and block the freeways. Sometimes, this is useful to rally the faithful, but in the face of the current mean-spirited and triumphal conservatism, we can no longer afford such self-indulgent nonsense. As you have pointed out, ignoring the radical right is no longer a reasonable or safe response. But many are ignorant of effective ways to express their opposition.

When you began your series, anything resembling real fascism still seemed remote. Since then, Chris Matthews, Michael "Savage," and a slew of conservative bloggers have expressed themselves in the clearest brownshirt terms. Even in my most paranoid moments, I would never have believed our country could go so far to hell in so short a time.

I love America, and what I thought it stood for, too much to let it go this easily. John Keliher and millions of others feel the same. While many are ready to go into the streets for the usual theater, a larger number are not willing to. They need a means to express their feelings. The (I hesitate to use the phrase) silent majority must speak while they still can. We need a dialog on the best means to do this.

I think there's an obvious contradiction between my analysis and Keliher's, in that I obviously advocate standing up to the haters in our society and shining a spotlight on them. My own experience made very clear that simply ignoring them in the hope they'll wither on the vine is a good way to have your home overrun with vines.

On the other hand, I strongly agree with the thrust of his point, and it's one well worth exploring further.

The choice isn't merely between ignoring and responding; there are smart ways to respond, and there are dumb ways that make matters worse. James A. Aho, in his This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, explores the way opposition to hate groups and assorted Patriot activities often contributes to extenuating the cycle of paranoia and violence that is their raison d'etre.

Hate groups are built around the demonization of some class or clan of people. Though the common caricature of most people drawn to such groups is of a loathsome scumball, in truth these people see themselves as heroic, which is hardly an uncommon thing in our society, as Aho puts it: "To use Becker's phraseology, human beings need to know themselves as heroes." The worldview of haters is such that the marginalization they receive at the hands of broader society is actually confirming evidence of the rightfulness of their beliefs.

Moreover, the whole enterprise of becoming heroic entails the naming of the Enemy:
The warrior needs an enemy. Without one there is nothing against which to fight, nothing from which to save the world, nothing to give his life meaning. What this means, of course, is that if an enemy is not ontologically present in the nature of things, one must be manufactured. The Nazi needs an international Jewish banker and conspiratorial Mason to serve his purposes of self-aggrandizement, and thus sets about creating one, at least subconsciously. By the same token, the radical Zionist locks himself in perverse symbiosis with his Palestinian "persecutors," the Communist with his "imperialistic capitalist running dogs," the capitalist with his Communist "subversives."

Aho goes on to explore the way that heroes and their enemies have a symbiotic relationship. Each needs the other. And after awhile, each comes to resemble the other. They are locked in a Manichean struggle of "us vs. them" that seems never to cease, unless the cycle itself is broken.

The classic case of this was the (now hopefully defunct) Jewish Defense League, which used to send a pack of howling banshees out to the Aryan Nations' annual July parade in Coeur d'Alene to scream epithets at them. Meanwhile, the locals simply organized a "celebration of diversity" on the same day elsewhere, and the townfolk always obliged by showing up there in droves, and otherwise simply shunning the AN.

The AN marchers loved seeing the JDL screamers (who of course saw themselves as heroic iconoclasts). Got their blood going. And they hated that no one else turned up to watch.

The KCHRTF approach's success was instructive, and indicates the solution suggested by Aho [though this was published in 1994, it obviously has great currency]:
The first step in breaking through the logic of enemies is to posit a now widely acknowledged fact: The world of radical dualism, of us and them, is in crisis, its splitting evident in a series of contradictions. There is the contradiction between military security and domestic (national) security, as exploding military expenditures to protect ourselves from "them" consume the wealth of our common household. There is the contradiction between the survivability of weapons systems -- "survivability," a term in technostrategic jargon referring only to weapons systems -- and the viability of the "collateral resources" (us), whose lives these systems were originally designed to protect. There is the contradiction between individual freedom and the legion of priests, therapists, and moral entrepreneurs (which is to say, us), poised and armed to correct, "heal," order, regiment -- in a word, "militarize" -- the bodily orifices of "them": their mouths, their anuses, their pores, and ears, and their endlessly "perverted" tastes, hungers, appetites, drippings and effusions.


Here, too, we grasp a sobering answer to the question of whether in our struggles against evil we can avoid becoming infected with it ourselves. If we believe what the ancient texts relate, this is simply impossible. We cannot engage in political fighting without tasting the bitter fruit from the tree of knowledge and losing our innocence. Max Weber once referred in his writings to the biblical warning that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52), commenting that "fighting is everywhere fighting." But there is a big difference between going into battle either clearly recognizing our family resemblance to the opponent or blindly denying it, rendering us automatically into the malleable tools of what Weber calls "the diabolic forces lurking in all violence."

Nor is consciousness of our own evil important in just a negative sense. A close reading of the hero myths reveals that the champions all acknowledge the futility of attacking the monster directly. Rather, they are advised by an elfin helper to employ wiliness, to sneak up on her as she sleeps or in some other way is distracted, searching for the chink in her armor. In other words, to defeat the serpent the hero must become serpentlike himself; slippery and mercurial. The proud refusal to do so would only render him the enemy's victim. This is consistent with the ancient Chinese military admonition that acknowledgement of one's own envy, vengefulness, lust, dishonesty and greed is the very precondition to victory. For without this wounding self-knowledge, one is defenseless against the enemy's traps and ploys. "Know the enemy and know yourself," says Sun Tzu, the fifth century B.C. military theorist, "and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril."

In a practical sense, I think breaking the cycle entails breaking out of the dehumanization process that occurs on both sides. This entails not only acknowledging but stressing the humanity of everyone involved, including the haters.

I try to explain to community groups like the Kalispell gathering I referenced earlier that standing up to hate does not require confrontation, and in fact is more effective when it eschews conflict for simple factual rebuttal and clear-eyed rationality. Counter hateful speech with non-hateful speech. Counter crazy theories and wild-eyed accusations with calm common sense. Recognize at all times that they have a right to speak, and try to respect it, even if they do not respect yours. At all costs, don't descend to their moral level. Contempt for your rights is the cornerstone of their actions and beliefs, and it's important not to reciprocate. At the same time, it's important to be persistent. Every opportunity at which they present themselves -- from letters to the editor to public meetings -- should be met with a response.

A different aspect of the same problem arises in journalistic coverage. Most often news reportage of extremist activity is handled by a local cops-and-courts reporter, or perhaps a political features writer, who has little or no background on the nature of some of the groups they're called on to report about. So you'll get stories about either crimes or organized events by right-wing extremists that present their claims without the benefit of any kind of context explaining to readers the agenda behind the claims. Worst of all are those stories which try to "balance" them out by presenting, as the "left wing" counter to right-wing extremists, such identifiably mainstream organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL -- as though the truth were somewhere in between.

This kind of shallow journalism indeed worsens the problem, since it in fact gives the right-wingers precisely the kind of coverage they love. Unfortunately, it comprised the bulk of most reportage about the Patriot/militia movement in the 1990s.

What they hate is informed, in-depth coverage that exposes their agendas and the logic (such as it is) behind their cockamamie theories and recruiting strategies. They hate having their longtime connections to radical ideologies exposed. Most of all, they hate journalism that not only takes a skeptical approach to their agenda and their ideas, but gives it any kind of serious critical examination.

They hate having the light turned on. It makes them scatter.

In a larger sense, that's the approach that has to be taken now, if we're to have any kind of hope to break the truly vicious cycle into which we are descending.

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