Thursday, September 04, 2003

MEChA and the Transmission Belt

Following up on the recent post about MEChA and the right-wing meme that it is a "racist organization"

I argued in that post that the meme has its origins in the racist right, and has become a prime example of the way extremist ideas and agendas work their way into the mainstream. Let's explore that in more detail.

As I mentioned, it has long been a favorite theme of the extremist right -- particularly neo-Nazis like David Duke and William Pierce, as well as Identity types like Pete Peters -- that civil-rights advocacy groups like the NAACP and the ADL are themselves racist. A fine recent example of this is Duke's rantings about "Jewish supremacism," which throws neoconservatives into the pot too.

The MEChA meme clearly resembles these claims in both form and substance, as I demonstrated, since the group clearly is multicultural in its orientation and not merely benign but probably a genuinely beneficial organization, at least in most regards. (We'll save a discussion of the merits of "identity politics" for another day.) But are the meme's origins in fact extremist?

Well, yes.

I did a Google for "MEChA racist" and came up with 9,550 hits. The vast bulk of these have in fact originated in the past 30 days. I wasn't able to spend the time to count just how many have, but I scanned each page and was astonished by the count. A number of the hits included pages from MEChA activists denouncing racist behavior, which of course is not representative of this meme. But I would have to guesstimate that at a bare minimum, half of the 9,550 hits have been published since early August, when it first began gaining traction.

Nearly all of the oldest hits that seem to have originated the meme are in fact extremist in nature, including a few minor Web sites, but most significantly the far-right American Patrol.

Patrol, you may recall, is in fact designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is because it engages in heavily exclusionist rhetoric that constantly demeans Latinos. It also promotes a variety of anti-Latino conspiracy theories, including Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia, which claims that both Mexico and American Hispanics secretly intend to return "Aztlan" to Mexico.

Since the mid-1990s, American Patrol -- which is operated by a man named Glenn Spencer -- has also been closely associated with, and in some cases directly involved with helping to organize, a variety of Patriot/militia "border patrols" in various locales of the Southwest. The most recent manifestation of this (one in which Spencer has been again involved) is the "border militias" in Arizona, which in recent months have been reported to be harassing Latino Americans out camping in border areas.

Spencer seems to have been one of the first to begin claiming, on a regular basis, that "MEChA is racist." Indeed, his first foray into the argument appears to have been in 1996, with an article titled, "MEChA calls for the Liberation of 'Aztlan' ". As it happens, this was one of the first attempts to depict the "Aztlan" mythos as racist and exclusionist -- which, as the meme has been transmitted into the mainstream, has become the chief form of argument. (I hope I demonstrated clearly enough in the last post why the mythos is neither racist nor exclusionist, but as practiced by MEChA -- compared to such radical offshoots as La Voz de Aztlan -- is largely inclusionary and multiculturalist.)

Of course, American Patrol has since then made a positive festish out of MEChA in subsequent years, as demonstrated by the Web page its has devoted to the issue, "The Scourge of MEChA". On this page you'll find a collection of pieces to which it either has contributed material or simply continues the meme. Throughout, you can find Spencer's regular comparisons of MEChA to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis as well.

Spencer's agenda has been seeping into the mainstream for awhile. Of particular note was Patrick Buchanan's regurgitation of David Duke's longtime talking point, namely, that the "white race" is about to be swamped by a horde of colored people, in his bestseller The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. According to Buchanan (who cites Spencer), MEChA is "a Chicano version of the white-supremacist Aryan Nation ... and is unabashedly racist and anti-American."

Also of note was a piece in the Feb 25, 2002, edition of the Washington Times headlined "Activist warns of border war," which described an address Spencer gave to a Los Angeles group in which he argued that a "border war between the United States and Mexico 'could happen any day,' " and goes on to quote Spencer as saying: "We have on our hands a Mexican border civil war that could happen tomorrow … I think it's a matter of time.":
With hundreds of Mexicans illegally crossing the United States' southwest border daily, Mr. Spencer said, conflict between the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities could touch off strikes, protests, and riots by Hispanic militants in the United States -- a combination border war and civil war that "could happen any day," he said.

Spencer cites MEChA documents to support his claims in the piece.

Similarly noteworthy is Bill O'Reilly's hostile March 8, 2002 interview with a Mechista in which he depicted them as desiring to retake "Aztlan" for Mexico and kick out whites in the process.

The "MEChA is racist" meme began percolating again last fall. The right-wing ChronWatch, which devotes itself to critiquing the San Francisco Chronicle through an ultra-right lens (and in fact has proven on several occasions to be a transmitter of extremist memes, most recently in its suggestion that, apropos of Ann Coulter's neo-McCarthyism, dissent against Bush's war agenda is seditious), attacked MEChA in a Nov. 19, 2002, piece, "More Reporting on MECHA at U.C. Berkeley. Disturbing", which describes MEChA's supposed "hatred and prejudice" by citing a piece from the right-wing California Patriot, which itself repeats Spencer's characterization of MEChA, citing (like Spencer) the early MEChA documents as proof of its ill intent.

But the piece that clearly kicked off the current frenzy about the meme was Lowell Ponte's Aug. 11, 2003, piece on David Horowitz's FrontPage magazine, "Bustamante: The Racist in the Race?" (As I have noted previously, Horowitz already has a history of spreading extremist memes at his Webzine.) Interestingly enough, Ponte does not cite Spencer as a source anywhere in the piece, but repeats Spencer's core themes: Aztlan is a racist concept, therefore MEChA is comparable to the Klan and Nazis. He also repackages much of Spencer's alleged "proofs"; most of Ponte's charges against the group can be found at American Patrol's Web site or in articles citing Spencer as the chief source. It also features bizarre speculation that Cruz Bustamante secretly fancies himself the future ruler of Aztlan.

Perhaps also worth noting about Ponte's piece: Its original versions included the accusation (since edited out) that MEChA was connected to the racist and anti-Semitic hate group La Voz de Aztlan, a charge thoroughly debunked here. This claim immediately surfaced in the blogosphere, notably at Alan Henderson's blog, and it has continued to resurface at such high-profile sites as Instapundit (who has since corrected the error) [more on that below].

The real spread of the "MEChA is racist" meme in the blogosphere came from Tacitus, who specifically cites both Ponte and American Patrol, though it disavowed Ponte's speculations about Bustamante's motives, and noted that he only cited American Patrol after satisfying himself that it was "factually correct" (a hazardous claim to make when citing anything Spencer produces). He also sounds a disturbingly McCarthyesque note by also hinting at a MEChA-La Voz connection, calling them "fellow travelers." (!) However, Tacitus mostly tries to make a reasonable argument that MEChA is racist, though as I have argued, his grounds for making that charge are more than thin -- and make no mistake, labeling someone "racist" is a very serious charge, one that requires solid ground. As I have suggested previously, one would think conservatives should be more aware of this than anyone.

Alas, Michelle Malkin a few days later demonstrated just how happily conservatives can bandy the "racist" label willy-nilly when given the chance. Her Aug. 20 column, "Bustamante, MEChA and the media," repeated the core points of the meme, comparing MEChA to Nazis and the Klan and various white supremacists (only revealing, once again, how little they understand or appreciate the horrors of those groups, and frankly demonstrating their crude insensitivity to the reality of those horrors). Malkin, of course, also contends that Aztlan is a racist and exclusionist program.

Malkin appears to be the source of the false translation of the MEChA slogan, Por La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada, which appears in an early MEChA document called the Plan Spiritual de Aztlan. Malkin translates this as "For the Race, everything. For those outside the Race, nothing." This translation has subsequently appeared in a multitude of conservative attacks on MEChA, both in the mainstream media (see, for example, Bustamante's Fox interview, cited by Mickey Kaus, at which he was obviously baffled by the distorted translation) and throughout the blogosphere.

As I noted last time out, this is false; the slogan is intended as a declaration of fealty to one's cultural heritage. Its syntax is clearly inward, not outward, in orientation. A more accurate translation would read, "In service of my people, everything; [for] apart from my people, [I have] nothing." There is neither the exclusionist nor the racist content that Malkin implies. La Raza, it must be noted, is not a racial concept but an ethnic one (it comprises multiples races, in fact).

Moreover, Malkin characterizes the slogan as its "motto." In reality, it is only a slogan that appears in a handful of MEChA documents. As Rodolfo Acuna points out, MEChA's actual motto is La union hace la fuerza, or "Unity creates power."

Shortly after Malkin's column, the meme exploded in the blogosphere and throughout the right side of the media, including WorldNetDaily.

The same day, Investor's Business Daily produced a story titled "Who's Cruz?" that mostly duplicated Ponte's material. But it provided a springboard for whwat was unquestionably the most significant transmission of the meme into the mainstream: namely, at the hands of Rush Limbaugh, who on the same day produced his own version of the tale, "Bustamante Fondled Racist Group, Terms." Notably, Limbaugh conspicuously promotes that American Patrol favorite, Victor Davis Hanson's paranoiac Mexifornia.

The meme has continued to spread throughout the mainstream conservative media, notably at Fox News, where it has been receiving prominent play on its newscasts and talk shows as well. [It should be noted that the original version of the Fox story cited Spencer extensively; that material, as well as the original, more inflammtory headline -- which called MEChA "racist" -- has since been edited out.]

None of this should be a surprising development by any means. Fox has an extensive track record in transmitting extremist ideas into the mainstream, as does, of course, Limbaugh.

Finally, it is worth noting that all of this came bouncing back to American Patrol, whose Web site now proudly displays all these stories. It is clear that the proliferation of the meme is viewed by the hate group as a major validation of its agenda.

What is probably more disturbing is seeing the meme making its way from the conservative into the broader, centrist and even liberal mainstream. The most prominent example of this is Glenn Reynolds' extraordinarily shallow treatment of the issue, beginning with this post two days ago, and which continues with further nonsense yesterday and today. Most of all, Reynolds clearly has swallowed whole the falsehood that MEChA is racist and separatist. It is important to note that not one of the sources he cites is able to provide an adequate definition of just what they mean by "racist." Again, it is an extremely serious charge, and the thoughtless abandon with which it is now being flung is a disgrace.

Reynolds is widely regarded as more or less centrist, or at worst libertarian, though he is of course vehemently pro-war and has become increasingly conspicuous as a Bush apologist. Nonetheless, he is broadly viewed as a "common-sensical" voice by a broad range of pundits and commentators as well as readers, not to mention of course his outsize influence in the blogosphere.

In other words, for perhaps the first time since the early days of the civil-rights era, we have seen a mainstream, clearly multiculturalist organization being broadly portrayed as "racist." And if MEChA is "racist," in short order we will be hearing that the NAACP and the Urban League and the ADL and other ethnic "uplift" organizations, too, are "racist." Which, as I mention, is what white supremacists have been claiming for years.

The logical end point of this meme is the spread of the belief that multiculturalism itself is a kind of racism, an argument we also see in the easy dismissal of "identity politics" by people like Reynolds and Mickey Kaus.

My previous discussion of the transmission belt of ideas and agendas from the extremist right into the mainstream mostly provided a rough outline of the mechanisms by which it operates. But the MEChA meme provides us with an up-close view of the transmission as it proceeds.

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