Saturday, March 15, 2003

Rush, Newspeak and Fascism, Part 12

[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11.]

Last summer I drove out to Kalispell, Montana, to give a talk to a community gathering there at one of the local parks. It was organized by a Flathead Valley version of the "Not In Our Town" campaign, and about 200 people showed up for the potluck dinner. Among them were the mayor of Kalispell, the police chiefs of both Kalispell and nearby Whitefish, several pastors and even a couple of local judges. I was one of about five speakers.

Most of the crowd, though, was comprised of local conservationists and environmentalists from around the Flathead Valley. And in many ways, it was on their behalf that I was speaking.

Kalispell made the news last year when a militia outfit called Project 7 was broken up by local police. Its leader, a 38-year-old named David Burgert, was arrested for jumping bail on an earlier conviction for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest; when captured, officers uncovered him in possession of an arms cache of about 30 weapons and some 30,000 rounds of ammo. (Dan Laidman wrote up an excellent account of the incident -- and its broader implications -- for Salon.)

What was even more disturbing was the simultaneous discovery of his plans for this materiel: To run amok in a killing spree against local authorities. Burgert had organized a team of about 10 people to target some 26 city and county officials, including some of those same police officials, mayors and judges who came out for the potluck last summer.

Burgert, who has received support from the usual suspects, currently faces federal firearms charges in the case, but no one has ever been charged in the alleged conspiracy, partly because any evidence that the plot extended much beyond Burgert's fantasies was not very strong. He has countered by filing a lawsuit against the FBI and Montana's state Division of Criminal Investigation.

But "Project 7" was at best the tip of the iceberg for what's been happening in the Flathead Valley in the past couple of years. See if this has a familiar ring to it: A rabid right-wing radio talk-show host has been stirring up a campaign of hatred aimed at local liberals. In this case, though, the threats have gone beyond simply empty words into concrete action involving threats and intimidation.

The talk-show host in question is a fellow named John Stokes, who operates little KGEZ-AM, a radio station south of town next to Highway 93 (in fact, there are reasons to believe he bought the station mainly as a way to scam the state out of millions in condemnation proceedings, but that's another story). Shortly after Stokes took over in 2000, he began broadcasting right-wing screeds that indeed made Rush Limbaugh sound like "the voice of reason" in contrast. Stokes regularly launched vitriolic attacks on all kinds of liberals; gays and lesbians came in for special scorn (he accused two lesbian activists in Missoula whose home had burned down in an arson of setting the fire themselves), and of course Bill Clinton was a frequent target.

The primary targets of Stokes' venom, though, were conservationists and environmentalists, for whom not even the most appalling comparison nor the most groundless accusation was adequate: Stokes constantly referred to them as Nazis, and the central thrust of all his attacks was that "greens" were responsible for nearly everything that was wrong with life in Western Montana, particularly the depressed economy. Indeed, Stokes has referred frequently to Patriot conspiracy theories, and not merely on the subject of environmentalists (who are viewed by militia types as a cult intent on enslaving the rest of mankind); he's also trotted out Patriot theories on such subjects as taxation and the Constitution.

Unsurprisingly, his audience reflects this kind of proto-fascist orientation. Many of his callers have outright advocated violence against conservationists, and Stokes has encouraged them to do so.

The real-life consequences of all this talk made quite clear that this was not merely "entertainment," and that Stokes' "hot talk" was doing more than just garnering ratings. Beginning in the summer of 2001, local conservationists began receiving a series of death threats, some delivered in person, others by phone. Car windows were smashed in, tires slashed. Strange men would show up in people's yards at twilight, then run off when confronted. People's homes were vandalized. Others would be followed home by men in pickups or on motorcycles. Sometimes the teenage children of the targets were threatened.

And egging all of these people on was John Stokes. Sometimes callers would announce on his show that a local conservationist was on vacation, which would present an opportunity to "visit their home." In others, a caller would simply give the home address of an environmental activist who had just been vilified as "Satanic" on the air by Stokes.

The Montana Human Rights Network, which is run by a sixth-generation Montanan named Ken Toole -- a Toole was the state's first governor, and Toole's father was the much-beloved historian K. Ross Toole -- kept track of all these incidents and compiled them in a detailed report titled School Yard Bullies: The Harassment of Conservationists in the Flathead (which is not available online, but can be obtained by writing to them). Reading the report, the sheer volume of the harassment becomes almost overwhelming -- which is exactly what the environmentalist community in the valley has been feeling. (An earlier story in the Missoula Independent captured much of the flavor of what has been happening.)

One of the victims of the harassment -- an ex-cop named Brenda Kitterman, whose teenage daughter also got caught up in the threats -- decided to fight back, and has been one of the prime movers in organizing the "Not in Our Town" campaign. She read In God's Country and got in touch with me, asking if I'd talk to the summer potluck gathering. (These kinds of calls are very gratifying, since this was precisely the main reason I wrote the book -- to provide an information resource for the communities that are confronted with the Patriot movement and its manifestations.) I periodically give talks like this before various civic groups where these problems arise, and the Flathead Valley is a special place. I naturally agreed.

Stokes of course heard about the Saturday event, and on the Friday before he reportedly urged his listeners to show up at the potluck with their guns, since that was what people like the organizers expected anyway. As it happened, though, he told them to go to the wrong park at a different time -- directing them, in fact, to a fundraising event for a couple of young children whose parents had recently died. There were no reports of people with guns showing up there, thankfully. And certainly none of them showed their faces at the park where we were holding the potluck, though the presence of all those police cruisers may have had something to do with that.

It was mostly an informal affair, and I am hardly a gifted (much less confident) public speaker, but it was a rewarding trip anyway, because of course I got to meet a lot of very interesting people. The gathering was filled with the kind of Westerners I have always been comfortable around, and their common-sense worldview is always refreshing.

It occurred to me, though, that what we were witnessing in the Flathead was something like what we saw eight years before, when the Patriot movement was first gathering steam in western Montana: A sort of testing the waters for a right-wing strategy that eventually would be taken to a larger national scale.

Eight years before, I had watched as a venomous attack on the government was promoted -- at literally every single militia meeting I ever attended -- primarily through a pathological hatred of President Clinton that focused on his supposed immoral nature; and among its target audience, it was a phenomenally successful strategy. I then watched as that same hatred was transmitted to the nation as a whole and culminated in the national travesty of his impeachment.

So I wondered if soon, apropos of the trend in the Flathead Valley, we would be seeing vitriolic hatred directed no longer at the president, nor even at the government per se, but at liberals generally, scapegoating them specifically for some great national malady. And I wondered if it would begin translating into threats and intimidation.

Well, unfortunately, we're starting to see some of this already manifesting itself in the fast-rising tide of jingoism surrounding the conservative movement's support for George W. Bush's war in Iraq. This means we are indeed entering some very dangerous waters that could sweep us into the dark currents of fascism.

We've been hearing for some time now, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Taranto, that Americans who dissent from Bush's war strategy are being "treasonous," "pro-Saddam" and "anti-American," and from the likes of Andrew Sullivan and David Horowitz that liberals now comprise a "fifth column" of potential traitors who would aid the enemy. Now, from the likes of Michael Savage, we're also hearing that such dissenters are a threat and should be arrested. And finally, President Bush himself has intimated that opposition to his regime's war plans can bring about unhappy repercussions for the dissenters, not from the government, but from "the people" -- a hint that has the distinct sound of loosing the dogs.

This trend could flare to a roar if antiwar protesters indeed carry through on their reported plans to disrupt and directly interfere with military activities. As Left In The West points out, this is a phenomenally stupid plan that would probably completely discredit the antiwar movement, and even more important, could result in an unstoppable backlash that would eventually extend beyond mere antiwar dissent to liberals generally.

So far, grass-roots support of the pro-war faction is thin at best (witness the pathetic rallies that have been held on behalf of this cause). But the massive propagandizing of the right against liberals generally and antiwar elements specifically is an area where a number of disturbing trends are beginning to coalesce:

-- The increasing tendency of extremist memes to appear in mainstream discourse as an acceptable version of conservative thinking, propelled especially by the now-apparent bias among most national media outlets favoring conservative propaganda.

-- Bush's purposeful projection of religious motivations for his war effort, with overt suggestions that his decisions are divinely guided.

-- The extremist right's growing identification with Bush, and their apparent willingness to use thuggish tactics of intimidation on his behalf.

-- Likewise, the Bush regime's increasingly apparent willingness to make use of such factions for their own political ends.

-- The rising demonization of antiwar liberals, complete with vicious eliminationist rhetoric.

-- The constant framing of the war in jingoistic "national renewal" sentiments, both in political and religious terms.

-- The dislocation caused by the flailing economy and terrorism fears, both of which raise the conditions under which people become willing to turn to totalitarianism.

It seems to me that these rivulets are coalescing in a campaign directed against antiwar liberals, and creating a powerful undercurrent that hasn't yet broken through the surface. What hasn't happened yet is that the thuggishness has not directed itself on any kind of large scale at all (there have only been a few isolated incidents, like the recent one in Cobb County, Georgia); neither has the Bush regime made any kind of open signal that such activities are viewed approvingly.

If they do, then I am convinced that the nation is in serious danger of submerging under a tide of genuine fascism. And as I've been arguing all along, it won't be a fascism we can easily recognize. It won't be German-style or Italian-style; rather, it will be uniquely American -- probably, if history is any guide, one with a veneer of Christian fundamentalism, but underneath, one predicated on a coalescence of corporatist power with proto-fascist thuggery.

That said, even though the danger is clear, it's important to understand that we are not there yet. More to the point, we can stop this slide. We only need to be aware that it is occurring.

My advice would be nearly identical to that which I give those little community groups like the one in Kalispell: Stand up for democracy. Don't threaten and don't cajole. And don't back down.

Most people -- conservatives especially, who view analyses like mine as merely an attempt to smear Republicans -- are in denial about these trends. Even in Kalispell, there was resistance from many in the business community that even addressing the problem just gave the extremists free publicity -- ignoring, of course, the reality that trying to pretend them away just gives them a free ride. (Sure enough, there was no reportage on the Not In Our Town event from any of the local papers.)

I have been down that path myself. When I was the editor of the little daily paper in Sandpoint, Idaho, back in 1978-79, we made a conscious decision not to cover the activities that were taking place at that little nook in the woods 30 miles south of us called the Aryan Nations, believing that giving them any publicity would just help legitimize them. Five years later -- after a campaign of anti-minority harassment and general intimidation finally culminated in a series of bank robberies and murders by a gang of locals who called themselves The Order -- the paper's policy had wisely changed.

From my experience and that of nearly every community that has had to deal with right-wing extremism, the notion that paying attention to it -- covering both the leaders and the followers in the press, responding to them publicly -- only publicizes their kookery is a gross mistake. Remaining silent and refusing to stand up to them is not an adequate response. They mistake the silence for complicity, for tacit approval.

This is equally true of the shape-shifting "transmitters" who take extremist memes and inject them into the national discourse, often under the guise of providing "fiery" rhetoric. When the public starts calling them on the sources of their ideas, and exposing them for the coddlers of hate-mongers, extremists and terrorists that they are, then they inevitably scurry back and hide under the rocks whence they crawled out. This is already starting to happen with Michael Savage; it needs to begin happening with Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and the rest.

Like all bullies, they prove cowards in a real fight. It's time for the rest of America to start fighting.


A note: This concludes the main body of the series. In a few days, I'll wrap things up with a Postscript that will review the main conclusions I've drawn, and a few more ideas on where to go from here.

Many readers have inquired about whether I'm going to put the series together in a format that can be read at once; and the answer is yes. In a few days I'm going to put together a PDF file that will feature the text of the series, and will footnote some of the links. The plan now is to make it available through an Amazon donation box that will (I hope) offset the bandwidth costs.

Most of all, I'd really like to use the series as a springboard for further discussion. I've already received some terrific letters on the subject, and will be posting some of those in the coming days. I'm hoping to receive many more. Of course, since I don't have a comments box, this will have to substitute for a livelier discussion; but considering some of the letters I've already received, I'm confident it will be edifying anyway.

Keep those cards and letters coming! And thanks to all who have had the patience to wade through this.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

They hate America

More trouble brewing on the border ...

I've reported previously about the growing problem of white supremacists and militiamen becoming involved in vigilante border patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, some of this activity may already be producing deadly results.

Now it appears that an Arkansas-based group called White Revolution is planning a gathering at the Alamo in San Antonio a week from this coming Sunday. [Warning: Links take you to a white-supremacist site that is only for the strong of stomach.]
During this uncertain time of war and terrorism, nothing is more important than securing our borders and our nation’s security. White Revolution’s goals are to stop illegal immigration, secure our borders, and to preserve White American culture and civilization, as well as its’ founding race! Join us at the Alamo!

According to a press release the group distributed, this is a somewhat broad-based coalition that's planning to gather. It includes the "Creativity Movement" (also known as the World Church of the Creator, Matt Hale's neo-Nazi outfit), the Aryan Nations and the "National Socialist" movement.

Of course, knowing these characters, this could mean that about four guys from four different splinter groups will be the ones rallying on the steps. Or it could be a pretty good-sized gathering. I can't imagine their message will be popular with San Antonio's sizeable Hispanic population, in any case.

The disturbing thing is to see this kind of activity in the wake of President Bush's strong hints to Mexico in an interview he gave two weeks ago, indicating that a "no" vote on the Iraq war in the United Nations Security Council could inspire retaliation among "the people." At the time it seemed the message was a sidelong thumbs-up to the anti-immigration crowd, encouraging their activities in this area; now it appears that even if it wasn't intended that way, it may well have been read that way.

Of pickups and Dixie flags

Probably my favorite candidate so far among the Democrats is Howard Dean, because he appears to be the only member of the field with both the spine to say what needs saying and the tools for running the country. I've particularly admired both his outspokenness and the content of the things he's said.

Lately, however, he has been saying things that have made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Not because I disagree with his basic thinking, but because he expressed it in a way that makes me think he doesn't know what he's talking about. And the mistake he's making is one with potentially disastrous consequences.

At a series of campaign appearances -- including one before the Democratic National Committee, as well as one in South Carolina -- Dean has talked about the need for Democrats to attract votes from "white guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back":
"White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them [Republicans]," he said, "because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too!"

His core point is not only worth making, I happen to consider it an absolutely essential ingredient for the long-term success of any Democratic candidate: Namely, that the party needs to return to its agrarian roots, re-establish the needs of American family farmers as a priority, and draw back into the party those working-class rural dwellers whose interests are most naturally served by a progressive agenda.

One of the reason that Democrats have succumbed to Republicans in rural states -- where they enjoyed broad support for much of the better part of the 20th century -- is that the party has become increasingly urban-centric. Much of this is the natural outgrowth of relying heavily on raw numbers for political calculation; there is a much larger voting bloc in the cities than in the country, and it's much more easily reached. Thus the Democrats have in recent years focused much of their agenda on attracting urban and suburban votes. They have done so at the cost of their own soul, I believe.

The death of rural America -- a brutal, slow, painful death by suffocation, as corporate agribusiness displaces the family farm -- should be a major issue for Democrats. The Jeffersonian ideal, recall, was an America built as a nation of "citizen farmers." It may be something of a myth, but it is one that is deeply imbedded in our national psyche, and it is not one we can just hastily dispose of like some overripe cantaloupe.

Republicans have made great headway in these states by pretending to be on their side -- mostly by wrapping themselves in red-white-and-blue rhetoric, and especially by waving the bloody shirt of hating the gummint, who by the GOP's lights has been solely responsible for the entirety of rural dwellers' miseries (this was how they managed to fleece them with the misbegotten Freedom To Farm Act of 1996, which should have been more accurately named the Giant Hogtrough For Corporate Agribusiness). Indeed, it's clear this is one of the chief purposes of the proliferation of anti-government tropes by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts: to separate working-class people from the very political presence most capable of actually protecting their long-term interests from the Enronesque predators of unfettered corporatism -- namely, the gummint.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have treated these issues as empty afterthoughts at best (Al Gore actually had a reasonably intelligent agriculture program, but you'd never have known about it from either the "invented the Internet" Washington press corps or from Al Gore himself). They have essentially ceded the field to the GOP, and are now paying the price.

Dean at least is trying to confront the problem. Health care and education are natural starting points, though there are many more areas of common ground that in the long term may be even more important. Still, it's a smart gesture.

But Dean makes an error in staking out this argument, an unsurprising one, I suppose, for the son of a stockbroker: He presumes that rural America is monolithic. But in truth, like most American subcultures, it has its own internal divisions. And if you had to explain it in a simple sound bite like Dean's, that division nowadays is between the folks who have Confederate flag stickers in their back windows and those who don't.

The latter -- the decent, civility-minded, neighborly people of common sense and good will who make up the vast majority of rural America -- are the Democratic party's natural rural base, the people who have most felt abandoned by the party's urban focus in the past 20 years. They are the people that Dean, or whoever carries the party's banner, needs to bring back into the fold.

The former -- the neo-Confederates and Patriots, the right-wing extremists and the unregenerate racists and segregationists, all of whom are the people most likely to put a Dixie sticker in the back window -- are the people who once upon a time made the Democratic Party the acknowledged home of the nation's unreconstructed racists. They are the people who fled the party in the 1960s for the welcoming arms of the Nixonite Republican Party.

Dean should not be courting this faction of rural America. Even if he provides them with a brilliant plan to ensure health care for all of them, they will reject it and him in the end anyway, because their hatred of "gummint" ultimately knows no bounds.

I e-mailed Dean's campaign shortly after Al Gore's retirement from the 2004 race, asking for details about Dean's positions on agricultural issues. I made it clear I was leaning his direction but wanted to know more on what for me is a defining issue. I never heard back, of course; I assume e-mails are treated by Dean's campaign staff with the same dismissiveness they get from D.C. regulars, and a query from Seattle probably is low on the priority list. Still, I haven't seen anything on his Web site indicating an awareness of agricultural issues, let alone a serious approach to them. It seems that so far Dean is content to stick with snappy sound bites, so I can't say I'm very impressed.

I'm hoping for better. A good place to start would be to recognize that Dean needs to court the white guys with pickups who don't put racist symbols in the windows.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Thanks, Mr. Zimmerman

I've had this song rattling in my head today and I wonder if blogging will get it out. If not, well, damn.

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

As I was saying ...

Did somebody just mention that conservative Republicans are spreading extremist ideas into the mainstream?

Holocaust Denier Now Claims Gays Responsible For WWII
Minnesota state Rep. Arlon Lindner continues to defend his position that gays and lesbians were never persecuted during the Holocaust.

His latest allegation goes even further, saying that "the main gay participants in the Holocaust were Nazi concentration camp guards," and he suggests that homosexuality helped lead to World War II. Lindner said he bases his accusations on the book "The Pink Swastika," published by Abiding Truth Ministries, a right wing fundamentalist group based in Wisconsin that claims gays were responsible for the rise of Hitler.

In fact, The Pink Swastika is a favorite of such Patriot booksellers as the Christian Patriot Association (alongside the Protocols of the Seven Elders of Zion and Vigilantes of Christendom) and the Militia of Montana. You used to see it promoted at such hate sites as the (thankfully now-defunct) Society to Remove All Immoral Godless Homosexual Trash (STRAIGHT).

[Thanks to Atrios.]

Rush, Newspeak and Fascism, Part 11

[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.]

So far, when talking about the "receivers" who comprise the audience of the various "transmitters" of extremist memes into the mainstream, I've mainly focused on the mainstream Republicans who make up the mass of the conservative movement in America.

But as I've explained, these "transmissions" are two-way affairs, sending messages to both the mainstream and the extremists from whose worldview the memes are drawn: namely, that their formerly unacceptable beliefs are gaining acceptance. It essentially invites them to move into the mainstream without having to change their views.

And so for the past decade and more -- and particularly in the past three years -- mainstream conservatism has increasingly become home to a variety of right-wing extremists. Conservatives uniformly reject this reality, arguing that their party is not home to a bunch of wild-eyed lunatics; it's the home of tax-paying, churchgoing, job-holding, productive members of society.

One of the real problems with coming to grips with the right-wing extremists, in fact, is the public image that has grown up around them for the past half-century, but driven home in the militiaman stereotype of the 1990s: A half-educated, beer-swilling, Bible-thumping, child-beating, dentistry-challenged, gun-loving lunatic with both eyes rattling around in his head and a steady stream of hate foaming out of his mouth. Not to mention all those visions of black helicopters dancing in his head.

I have attended a lot of militia and Patriot meetings over the years, and this wasn't what I found at all. In my experience, the average militia member is a person who very much keeps all the appearances of being a mainstream player in society (as contrasted with, say, the skinheads and neo-Nazis, who more closely fit the description). Most of them are reasonably well educated. A large number of them are veterans. Most of the rest are agrarian or blue-collar workers with families. They all pay their taxes (unless they've been drawn in deeply by one of the tax-protest schemes) and vote and attend church.

The false stereotype is built on a sociological approach to these groups, called "centrist/extremist theory," developed in the 1950s that actually is now largely discredited among sociologists. This theory basically held that these "fringe" groups represented a constituency of largely uneducated classes who were grossly disenfranchised due to this fact, thus leading to their radicalism; their status also ensured that they would remain outside the realm of the mainstream. Well, subsequent data collected through the 1970s and 1980s began to demonstrate the weakness of this model; contrary to its prediction, surveys of "Christian Patriots" found that on average they were better educated than the population at large, and many of these groups' members actually prove to be highly educated and some of better-than-average means. Take, for instance, the saga of Carl Story and Vince Bertollini, who made millions in the Silicon Valley, moved to Sandpoint and promptly began underwriting the Aryan Nations and other Identity churches in the area. Of course, right now, Bertollini is on the lam and Story has moved away.

Among sociologists, at least, the apparently favored model is called "new social movements theory," which recognizes that there can be considerable interaction between these groups and the mainstream, and that many of their followers are in fact as mainstream-based as can be. And this is borne out largely by what we've seen in terms of the Patriot movement's spread via mainstream channels.

It is important to note that it is erroneous to conclude that since there are often shared themes on the right that all right-wing groups work together. It is not fair to presume that all conservatives are on a slippery slope toward reaction, nor that all reactionaries are inevitably borne on a transmission belt toward fascism. Migrations do occur, but they occur in both directions, just as on the left.

At the same time, however, it is equally undeniable that these kinds of associations forever alter the nature of the political body in question. The Republicans' Southern Strategy, by aiming to draw white segregationists into the GOP fold, ineluctably transformed the party to the point that calling it the "party of Lincoln" now, particularly in the South, is liable to draw hoots. The associations work both ways, of course; extremists are just as likely to have their anger defused and their extremism tempered by their exposure to mainstream influences. But the overall gravitational pull rightward by the extremist elements has become increasingly disproportionate in recent years.

The problem is that Americans -- and the media particularly -- have a view of these so-called "fringe" elements as being on the outskirts of society, when in reality they have become wholly interwoven with the rest of this. Much of the blame belongs to "centrist/extremist theory," which gained such prominence in the media in the 1960s that it has never been displaced from the popular understanding of political extremism. C/E theory was an offshoot of the chief sociological model of the '40s and '50s, "Collective Behavior Theory," which stressed irrational dimensions of movements and often saw them as potentially dangerous, temporary aberrations in the otherwise smooth-flowing social system. Let me recommend a resource for more on this point: Public Research Associates' page on "Studying the Right: A Scholarly Approach," which has a large amount of material on C/E Theory.

Chip Berlet sums it up thus:
Under centrist/extremist theory, dissident movements of the left and right were portrayed as composed of outsiders -- politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Their anxiety is heightened by fears that their economic or social status is slipping. Under great stress, these psychologically fragile people snap into a mode of irrational political hysteria, and as they embrace an increasingly paranoid style they make militant and unreasonable demands. Because they are unstable they can become dangerous and violent. Their extremism places them far outside the legitimate political process, which is located in the center where "pluralists" conduct democratic debates.

The solution prescribed by centrist/extremist theory is to marginalize the dissidents as radicals and dangerous extremists. Their demands need not be taken seriously. Law enforcement can then be relied upon to break up any criminal conspiracies by subversive radicals that threaten the social order.

You can read through the rest of the above piece to see why and how centrist/extremist theory has become discredited. But the coup de grace may have been delivered by a study that was important to my own work, James Aho's The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. ("Christian Patriots" is what the movement called itself in the 1980s and then morphed into the more secular and simple "Patriot movement" by the early 1990s.) Aho, who conducted a complete study with a full statistical sample, found that while a number of Patriots indeed fit the profile predicted by centrist/extremist theory, the majority did not. He found that they were often well educated (their average education was above the average American's), held regular jobs (though they did experience a higher degree of occupational isolation), and appeared "normal" by most measures: "Idaho's patriots in general do not seem more socially alienated from their communities than cross-sections of Americans or Idahoans. ... Out of the seven alienation variables on which information was gathered, statistical support for the theory of mass politics [another term for C/E theory] is found for only one."

The false stereotypes -- beloved among folks on the left for their value in lampooning right-wingers, and equally cherished on the right by conservatives loath to admit their influence -- have obscured the extent to which right-wing extremists have woven themselves into the fabric of mainstream conservatism. It's an illusion that has especially manifested itself in rural America, where the extremists' actual numbers are hardly overwhelming, but the number of people who sympathize with them is. I would hate to have counted how many times I (and others who work the field) have heard neighbors, friends and relatives of Patriots say: "Well, I don't buy everything they say, but I think some of it might be true, and I certainly can understand why they'd feel that way" (or some variant thereupon). In fact, it's rare when you can find a rural dweller out here who doesn't say something like that.

A deeper examination of the individual psychology of the kind of people who are drawn to extremist movements helps explain further how extremist believers intermingle with those in the larger mainstream. There have been many studies along these lines, but the one that seemed to most accurately describe the people I met in the Patriot movement could be found in the essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model," by Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins (both sociologists; Anthony is from Berkeley and Robbins from Yale). It is in the collection, Millennialism and Violence (1995), edited by Michael Barkun of Syracuse.

In this analysis, the Patriot movement and its millennialist relatives are described as "exemplary dualist movements," a direct product of the current larger social malaise:
It has been a staple of recent American cultural analysis and criticism that the contemporary United States increasingly lacks a consensual and compelling social ethic and that in consequence, the 'covenant' uniting the American people has become, in Robert Bellah's words, an 'empty and broken shell.' One consequence of the lack of an integrative ethic, we have intimated above, is a diminished capacity of parents -- who are themselves wrestling with the fragmented selves that result from the lack of an integrated ethic -- to serve as persuasive role-models or identification figures for their children, and thereby to transmit a coherent set of values. In this context parents may tend to treat their children as 'self-objects' in the sense of evaluating them in terms of tangible, purely external criteria such as their apparent social-academic-vocational 'success' or competence. This pattern enhances the anxiety over the themes of success, competence and power on the part of children, who are more likely to develop a fragmented or polarized self composed of a grandiose, all-powerful or omnipotent self which is split off from a devalued, pathetic, failed self.

Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded. Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

In my experience, this pretty accurately describes the dynamic of how and why people are attracted to such hateful beliefs as those held by right-wing extremists, as well as their pale reflecftions -- filtered, as it were, through transmitters -- advocated by such receiver types as the Freepers. It also clearly describes the meeting-ground for extremist and mainstream in the dualism common to all kinds of worldviews; it has always been pronounced both among right-wing extremists and the theocratic right, but of late it has become a staple of mainstream conservatives as well.

Most of all, the suggestion that the movement’s primary converts will be essentially dysfunctional people is not much cause for optimism, either, for as they note at the end, this kind of susceptibility to authoritarianism obviously increases during such periods of social chaos as we have had since Sept. 11:
We do not necessarily view the members of exemplary dualist groups as mentally ill or deeply disturbed relative to average levels of developmental maturity in the general population. We do believe that such groups appeal to individuals with certain identity constructions and difficulties. Nevertheless some degree of splitting, projective identification and polarized identity may be 'normal' for most people in mainstream culture.

People with completely holistic selves with an integrated ethical orientation rather than split-off negative external conscience may be relatively unusual, particularly in periods when general meaning orientations in the culture as a whole have declined in coherence and plausibility. ... When mainstream cultural coherence declines, and anomie and identity confusion become more common, active seeking for exemplary dualist involvements is one possible solution to immediate psychic pain.

Indeed, as we will see, this could very well explain why the right is becoming increasingly intolerant of liberalism: It is the one remaining component of society that has so far failed to join up with the dualist worldview being promoted not merely by transmitters like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, but by the Bush administration itself.

Next: The assault on liberalism

The Moscow bust

Talk Left has some remarkable material on the recent arrest of a Saudi national in Moscow, Idaho (on, as it happened, the day after I had been in Moscow giving talks to journalism students at the University of Idaho).

Jeralyn's posts on the raid (including this earlier one) are chilling -- not so much for the case, which appears to have some substance, but for the subsequent treatment of the Moscow Arab-student community. Some of this is coming from the FBI, who appear to be treading over the normal boundaries in questioning the suspect's fellow students. Almost as disturbing is the suspicion drifting their way from their neighbors, including some of the college town's weak-kneed multiculturalists who are now evidently having second thoughts.

This is laid out as well at today's Denver Post:

Terror arrest roils small town in Idaho
Mossaad quit feeling safe in this town of 22,000 people late last month with the arrest of a Saudi graduate student accused of funneling $300,000 to a group instigating terror. Now, the Muslims in Moscow's sizable international community feel singled out in a way that exceeds even the fearful, suspicious days after Sept. 11, 2001.

And some of Moscow's other residents, until now nearly smug in their advocacy of diversity and tolerance, are wondering if maybe they were a little too trusting.

Meredith Csenscits, 21, who is majoring in human resources management, said of the foreign students, "We feel sympathy for them. But if we're honest with ourselves, we're a little more nervous about them."

People like Meredith should have been realistic about their Muslim neighbors all along -- which is to say, they should have understood there was a chance that some of them might be involved with terrorists, however small it might be. And that this shouldn't implicate the rest of the Muslim community, anymore than the white-supremacist terrorists arrested the month before up in Spokane should implicate the Christian community.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Who doth protest

Brian Zick writes in to observe the following about the heated denials of responsibility that came from Rush Limbaugh and the talk-show right following the Oklahoma City bombing, which I discussed briefly in Part 10 of the Fascism series:
I wrote a poem in 1993 entitled Fat Bombast. The poem describes a fictional character of that name. The only real names I used are historical. But the main character was just a made-up name, which I conceived as a rhetorical device to amplify my description of the negative behavior that I was describing. I was trying to write something generic, to convey a generalized protest to behaviors I despised, in my own way attempting something like Orwell's Animal Farm or Kafka's The Trial. (I claim no equivalency, they were just models.)

My friend Ned published it on his Website (long before I had my own), and invited a "flaming contest" the copies of really funny ones which he would forward along to me.

One angry writer I recall specifically defended Rush Limbaugh, and defiantly proclaimed Limbaugh's longevity and virtue, while of course disparaging me with pretty lame vitriol.

But I didn't identify Limbaugh. My critic saw Limbaugh in his own mind by my abstracted description, as if being shown a Rorschach ink blot, and he then criticized me for voicing the characterization. Indeed, when Limbaugh reacted to Clinton's remarks, he did the exact same thing. He literally blamed Rorschach for what he chose to see in the ink blots. He saw himself in Clinton's words! Of course, being an unfriendly description, he attacked the critic. But the significant point is that HE SAW HIMSELF IN THE ABSTRACT DESCRIPTION!

This has been a recurring feature of right wing demagoguery, especially in relation to attacks on artwork. It has even been incorporated into Supreme Court law.

Anyone who ever saw Andres Serrano's Piss Christ knows it was an incredibly innocuous image. It was the title that got all the cranks worked up into their frenzy. And according to Serrano, they all had it backwards, he'd been attempting to editorialize about the debasement of Christianity, he wasn't advocating it.

When Dee Snyder from Twisted Sister appeared before the Senate to defend against charges that his songs had some ostensible terrible lyrics, he reviewed the innocuous words to a specific song in question and pointed out that Tipper Gore was simply trying to blame him for the workings of her own dirty mind.

I call this Blaming Rorschach. It's an exceedingly common phenomena employed for the express purpose of persecuting non-conformist expression, or for attacking any thought with which a hostile critic disagrees.

Of course, what Brian's describing is a very ancient human trait. I'm quite confident, in fact, that it formed much of the subtext of the Shakespeare line I quoted: "Methinks the lady doth protest too much."

From the 'Rockford' files

'Dr. James Rockford' [obviously a pseudonym] has been corresponding since I ran his post from Atrios' comments. 'Rockford' has professional reasons for maintaining his anonymity, but he confirms (as I suspected) that he is an actual PhD and ethicist. His academic work has been in psychology, philosophy (with an emphasis on epistemology and logic) and history, and he's invited to lecture to regularly at a well-known Midwestern university on ethics.

His missives again express my own thinking on the question of the use of torture, so I'll let him say it:
There is so much I want to say about torture. Support for it seems to me to be one of those things -- like slavery -- that are so obviously, axiomatically wrong as to almost defy argument. But argue we must.

It frustrates me that people think limited torture (torture within prescribed guidelines) is even effective -- the pragmatic, utilitarian argument, which was also put forward to justify slavery. They actually seem to have this almost romantic notion that a couple of electrical wires will magically make terrorists into canaries. So what's a little pain? It's just the lesser of two evils, etc.
On one hand thousands of people are saved, on the other we caused a guy a little pain. So what? It's a clear case where the ends justify the means. Right?

In fact, people can learn to withstand great physical pain and terrorists who are ready to die for a cause are likely to withstand almost any amount of physical suffering: I do have limited personal experience in the matter, but the best evidence is from the story about the terrorist who was supposedly transported to the Philippines to be tortured and ended up fessing up to a
dastardly plot to blow up some planes. It apparently took 67 days to break him. What sort of bomb would be accommodating enough to continue ticking for more than three months? Which means that if torture is to be effective, we have to be ready to inflict excruciating agony. Which brings me to the original questions I posed about involving a terrorist's family, questions so uncomfortable that none of the pro-torture people bothered to answer.

As I'm sure you know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's young children are apparently in US custody, which makes this question less than academic. It is chilling to think that if he does talk, we will have to wonder whether his children were involved somehow.

Monday, March 10, 2003

From the mailbag

My friend Alice Marshall writes from Fairfax, VA, in response to the discussion of torturing Al Qaeda members:
All the apologies for torture, especially the "what if there were a bomb about to go off" rationale, conveniently forget that there was such a situation.

The FBI Minnesota field office knew there was at least one guy planning to fly a passenger airliner into a building and very likely more. They held him on a visa violation and tried, over and over again, to search his hard drive. Not torture him, just a normal law enforcement procedures, search the suspect's computer. Those who sabotaged that request were rewarded.

We need to hit on that again and again and again. An experienced civil servant, using normal procedures, had the situation in hand. And was blocked by Republican political appointees. The Bush crowd doesn't want us to remember that. But why does the press, who all work in and around obvious terror targets, let them get away with it? Is not the gallows sufficient to concentrate their minds?

She is, of course, referring primarily to the case of Zacarias Moussaoui.

Rush, Newspeak and Fascism, Part 10

[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.]

I was driving around Billings, Montana, in the middle of a nasty blizzard in a cheap little rented car and trying to figure out what in the hell was going on when the Voice On Loan From God hit me.

There are, I suppose, things that you have to admire about Rush Limbaugh, and one of them is his voice. It is absolutely distinctive. I can hear it through a rolled-up car and know who the driver is listening to. But that afternoon in early March 1996 I heard him talk and it came as something of a revelation.

I actually have made a habit over the years of listening to Limbaugh because I want to know what he's saying. More to the point, I spend a lot of time driving around rural backcountry, and you have to know that Limbaugh is just about the only constant thing you can find on the radio out there. There's country music, but even it can be spotty. But Rush is everywhere. He is inescapable. He seems to be on at nearly all times of the day too. And sometimes the country music (especially the gawdawful crap they call 'new country') gets bad, and the tape collection gets old, and listening to Rush rumble away in that nice baritone is not all that bad to listen to, especially if I'm in the mood for the artistry of his awfulness. He makes me laugh, though not in ways he intends, I'm sure.

There wasn't anything new or remarkable about that day's broadcast. It just answered a question I had been trying to understand.

I was in Billings because a few days before, the FBI had arrested two leaders of the Montana Freemen at their compound near Jordan, Montana. I attended their initial hearings at the federal courthouse, drove up to Jordan for a day, then drove back to Billings for more courtroom action at the arraignments.

This was quite a bit of driving, especially with the ice and snow storm that had come through about a week before and was continuing to pile up. However, these had become familiar roads to me. I had been out this way only two months before, talking to people in Roundup and Jordan about the eruption of the Freemen on the local scene and trying to get a handle on what was happening to these rural societies.

Mostly I was trying to get a handle on the seething, venomous hatred of the government that was seeping out in the bile of movements like the Freemen, but was much, much more widespread. Almost literally anyone you talked to in rural America was bitter with their hatred of the "gummint" in nearly all of its forms, particularly the federal one. Certainly it had been on full display in the federal courtroom in Billings, where LeRoy Schweitzer and Dan Petersen had done their best to disrupt the hearings with their insistence that the entire proceedings against them were illegitimate.

I was no stranger to feelings of hatred of the government, for reasons I explained in In God's Country [short version: federal bureaucrats were responsible for the death of a great-aunt with whom I was close]. But this went beyond even that. It was blind, irrational, utterly visceral hatred that went beyond even the worst things I had heard from the mouths of Birchers when I was growing up. In fact, it reminded me of talk I had heard in only one other place previously: the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake. The conspiracy theories, the pseudo-legal 'constitutionalism', as well as the barely concealed race-baiting and anti-Semitism were all present. The only thing missing was the usual accompaniment of Nazi worship and cross-burning.

The thing about government-bashing out West is that nearly anyone who has lived here for any length of time, particularly if they have deep family roots, has directly benefited from government programs that are in fact responsible for their very presence on this land. It's a decidedly mixed bag that has always created a love/hate relationship between the government and the ranchers and farmers who have been its main beneficiaries.

In eastern Montana, for instance, this goes back to the homesteading programs of the post-1910 period sponsored by the federal government, in close cooperation (as it were) with the railroads. These were essentially scams which helped fill out millions of acres of empty space in the West but which more often than not proved financially disastrous for the homesteaders. [For a terrific account of this, read Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance.]

The federal government builds our roads, pays for our schools, constructs our water-supply and irrigation systems and the dams that make them go. We're actually terribly dependent on the gummint, which chafes rather nastily against Westerners' own deeply mythologized self-reliance and independence.

The sheer venom that was emerging from the Patriot movement, however, was in another universe -- built around cockamamie theories and wild-eyed fire-breathing rhetoric, and unmoored from any real semblance of reality, it was so wildly out of left field that it was an incongruous thing to be taking root in a place like Montana where common sense was most often the real coin of the realm. It was a disturbing thing to see how many people with ordinary working-class, agricultural backgrounds -- people who before had always been normal contributors to society, sometimes, as in the case of a couple of at least one elderly Freeman, Emmett Clark, with a rock-solid reputation in the community -- were being drawn into the Patriot movement and embracing at least its rhetoric, if not its agenda.

How had this happened? What was encouraging people to make this leap? I was puzzling over this that day in Billings, tootling around in a front-wheel drive Chevy that actually handled the snow just fine, and listening to Rush on the radio.

And that day, I decided to try listening to Rush as though I were someone like Dan Petersen or some other working-class stiff from Jordan -- not particularly educated, prone to a visceral kind of patriotism and similar politics, and insistent on my identity as an independent Westerner. Doing that, I got an answer, or at least part of one.

Limbaugh was holding forth that day on the subject of federal bureaucrats who he claimed were attempting to ignore the will of the people on matters relating to control of federal lands as well as the tax bureaucracy. At the apex of the rant, Limbaugh began speculating about the motives of these bureaucrats, and charged that they didn't care about "democracy" and that they would probably just as soon dispose of it, and any kind of responsiveness to the public, altogether if given the opportunity. That they would be happier in a dictatorship, which was what they were establishing anyway, Rush informed us.

Suddenly I had a very clear picture about how hatred of the government had reached such illogical and hysterical heights. Americans were being told, relentlessly and repeatedly, that not only was government a bad thing, it was inherently evil, indeed conspiring to take away their freedom and enslave them. The person telling them this was a mainstream conservative. And he was giving them essentially the very same message being spread by the Freemen and militias, but this time with the mantle of mainstream legitimacy. Rush was essentially taking people up to the edge of Patriot beliefs and introducing his listeners to them. And if they were people like those in Montana (or anywhere else the Patriot movement set up shop, which was largely every corner of the country), who already Patriots for neighbors, they would take the next step themselves.

Limbaugh's defenders, like Ann Coulter's, will no doubt defend this kind of talk as simple hyperbole intended to emphasize his point and inject some humor. That of course overlooks the effect that it has on their audiences, who may not be as sophisticated or as inclined to distinguish the hyperbole from the supposedly reasonable discourse. Indeed, the bulk of Limbaughites I have met tend to take his every utterance as virtual Gospel.

Thus, Limbaugh might claim that he's merely being critical of government, but this rhetoric treads beyond such perfectly acceptable (in fact desirable) robust political speech, to the kind that argues for the overthrow and utter dismantling of the system. And that is, if anything, the dividing line between being a politically active citizen and being an extremist, right or left. Limbaugh blurs that line constantly.

It was this kind of irresponsible demagoguery to which President Clinton referred in his remarkable address in Minneapolis a few days after the Oklahoma City bombing:
In this country we cherish and guard the right of free speech. We know we love it when we put up with people saying things we absolutely deplore. And we must always be willing to defend their right to say things we deplore to the ultimate degree. But we hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see -- I'm sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.

Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.

If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.

If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it. The exercise of their freedom of speech makes our silence all the more unforgivable. So exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake.

Though Clinton certainly never identified Limbaugh as one of those "angry voices," almost immediately Limbaugh responded with cries of censorship and claims that Clinton was attempting to silence him. The protests have continued so steadily that the claim that Clinton blamed Limbaugh has become a stock theme about the supposed perfidy of liberals. Indeed, Ann Coulter herself continued this meme in her book, Slander: Liberal Lies About The American Right, pp. 92-93: "When impeached former president Bill Clinton identified Rush Limbaugh as the cause of the Oklahoma City bombing, he unleashed all the typical liberal curse words for conservatives. He blamed 'loud and angry voices' heard 'over the airwaves in America' that were making people 'paranoid' and spreading hate."

Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Of course, Clinton did not name anyone, even though the voices he probably had more in mind were those belong to the likes G. Gordon "Head Shots" Liddy and some of the more vicious Patriot types like Chuck Harder, who constantly hawked Patriot conspiracy theories outright, alongside a full dose of rhetoric about the violent resistance of federal agents. But in fact Clinton used very general terms probably because he recognized the reality as well, which was that characters like Limbaugh and his fellow movement arch-conservatives have been irresponsible as well -- perhaps not to the same degree, except for the fact that the reach of transmitters like Limbaugh is so massive.

And the bitter truth, for people like Limbaugh, is that Clinton was right: Words have consequences. When you carefully tailor memes and ideas that promote an essentially extremist worldview to fit a mainstream audience, you're spreading poison into the community that can have extremely violent consequences. Anyone who's read American Terrorist has a pretty clear picture of how closely McVeigh's hatred of the government was fanned by both extremist and mainstream voices. And it was to all these voices which Clinton alluded.

Limbaugh's protests notwithstanding, it is not hard to see that while, of course, Limbaugh cannot be blamed directly for Oklahoma City, neither can he be wholly absolved. Whining does not relieve him from the responsibility for his words. Timothy McVeigh, and the wave of Patriot domestic terrorists who followed him, did not occur in a vacuum. They were creatures in a milieu in which Limbaugh and other ostensibly "mainstream" media, political and religious figures helped transmit and reinforce extremist ideas that, when nursed with a violent predisposition, became extremely volatile in real life.

These transmissions have a twofold effect, as I've mentioned earlier: They not only inject extremist ideas into the mainstream, but they brings the two sectors closer together.

Take two neighbors, Joe and Bill. Joe is a good taxpaying family man and a Republican precinct committeeman. Bill is a Patriot who attends Preparedness Expos and "common law court" meetings and has declared his "sovereign citizenship." Now, contrary to popular myths, most Patriots in fact are indistinguishable from any other average American -- they hold jobs, raise kids, carpool, attend church. And so in most respects, Joe and Bill get along fine, as most neighbors might, though Joe thinks Bill's ideas are kooky. Then he starts listening to Limbaugh, and after awhile, he begins to think that maybe his government-hating neighbor isn't so kooky after all.

Meanwhile, Bill listens to the same broadcasts and begins to believe that maybe mainstream Republicans are finally starting to "get it." The next time he and Bill talk over the fence, they find they have more to talk about. Pretty soon Joe is heading off with Bill to a Preparedness Expo, while Bill starts volunteering to work as a "poll watcher" for the Republicans in the next elections.

The result is that right-wing extremists wind up exerting a gravitational pull on mainstream conservatism -- and by extension, the whole political continuum -- that far exceeds their actual size or, for that matter, political viability. That the entire spectrum has shifted steadily rightward in the past 10 years and more could not be more self-evident. And at times, it has come with devastating results, as at Oklahoma City.

If nothing else, Oklahoma City should at least have been a signal to Limbaugh that it was time to tone down the rhetoric, to stop demonizing government employees and federal officials. That, as we have seen, has never occurred. Anti-government (though not anti-Bush) bile is still a constant of his radio rants, as anyone reading the current transcripts at Rush Transcript can see for themselves. Certainly it was that day in Billings, which was nearly a year after Oklahoma City.

More to the point, Limbaugh has now gone beyond merely demonizing the government to demonizing anything liberal. Of course, this sentiment has always been part of his schtick, but in recent months he has been stepping it up another notch. Not only are liberals to be opposed politically, they are in fact treasonous. This was explicit in his attacks on Sen. Tom Daschle, and has been a continuing theme as antiwar protests build, referring at one time to the dissenters as "Anti-American, anti-capitalist Marxists and Communists."

This is extremely dangerous talk, and not merely because it is divisive. It actually threatens to simultaneously harden the growing alliance between extremist and mainstream conservatives, and create a milieu in which violence against dissenters becomes acceptable. As I've been discussing, it is when we see this kind of coalescence that we are in real danger of seeing fascism blossom in America.

Of course, Clinton in fact made abundantly clear that day that the proper response is not to shut down those irresponsible voices, to try to silence them. That would be adopting their tactics, and put us on their moral plane.

Let Limbaugh and his cohorts have their say. And let the rest of us be there to counter his disinformation with facts, his false memes with a clear dose of reality.

But pretending that he's only an "entertainer" -- or for that matter that he really is wholly mainstream -- is no longer an option.

Next: More on the receivers

Silencing the voices

ABC suspends The Note:
A nation must always keep its sense of humor, but, for now, The Note's humor might not be the right national tonic.

Heaven forfend that any political reporting occur while we're at war.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Dehumanizing ourselves

A very thought-provoking post by Dr. James Rockford in Atrios' comments. He asked for this discussion to spread, so here goes:
I am quite gratified that you mentioned the increased tolerance for torture in this post. I hope you see fit to devote a post (or more) to it.

I am quite disheartened to see several prominent bloggers -- ostensibly sane, liberal bloggers -- justify torture. Oliver Willis supports torture ( and so does Radley Balko ( And Counterspin Central's Hesiod e-mailed me to declare as much.

This is very disheartening indeed. Our values are in far worse shape than I thought.

I don't know if Willis is trying to be cute or prove that he's a "tough" liberal so that he can get his much coveted radio show. Just like with his support of the death penalty, he does not offer any thoughtful reasons for supporting torture. He simply states he does because Al Qaeda is hateful. This is hardly an argument since nobody is suggesting torturing people whom we do not consider hateful, evil, etc. The challenge we face, as presumably civilized people, is to resist the temptation to torture horrid people -- because we do not want to become horrid ourselves.

But even more obscene is Balko's argument that it's OK to torture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because, "He's not an American citizen. He wasn't born here..." This is the sort of jingoism that really justifies anti-Americanism. Does Balko think that being a natural-born American citizen endow one with basic rights that should be withheld from non-citizens? Doesn't he realize that the selective application of rights implies that not all people are equally human? Racism, sexism, and countless other bigotries have been justified on the idea that the protections of the U.S. Constitution should apply only to a privileged class worthy of citizenship by virtue of color or sex -- or in Balko's case, birth.

I'm certain many people -- myself included -- have had revenge fantasies after 9/11. The sadness and the fury all caring people felt is undeniable. If this was a movie I would have derived immense visceral pleasure seeing Bruce or Arnold cut Osama's testicles and stuff them in his ears. But this is not a movie. This much should be obvious.

Those who defend torture will often base it on the Alan Dershowitz "ticking nuclear bomb" scenario: There's a nuclear bomb ready to go off and kill thousands of people. The one person who knows where it is won't say. In this case, who wouldn't use torture to extract the information?

Well, it is only fair to ask the pro-torture people to explain how far they would go. Torture, after all, it's not really about causing physical pain; it's about applying unbearable pressure -- which may involve physical pain but always involves degradation.

Since this is inherently a very unpleasant subject I will be uncomfortably, gruesomely specific: What if a nuclear bomber won't respond to mere pain? After all, terrorists like the 9/11 villains are prepared to die; I'm sure they can put up with a little pain. Now, the clock is ticking. Should we try sexual torture? Should we rape his child in front of his eyes to make him break? Cut the toddler up in pieces, a piece at a time?

Would Willis, Balko and Hesiod be willing to perform these services for their country?

It is only fair to ask those who support torture to provide a public answer. For the record, I'd rather go up in a mushroom cloud with my whole family and all my children and all my friends and pets and compatriots and acquaintances, and the whole country and the whole earth if need be than surrender my humanity. After all, in the long term, we'll all be dead. I'd rather die earlier and die a human.

I'm truly shocked that anyone left of Savage would ever advocate torture under any circumstances. Please give as much publicity as possible to this subject. Only a lot of light will illustrate it for what it is, a descent into barbarism, a surrender to our baser, reptilian impulses. If this attitude is as widespread as I fear, Al Qaeda won. It cost them a few terrorists and it cost us a country.

Dr. James Rockford

Eloquently put. I've had the same debate internally -- particularly considering the case of Ramzi Yousef, who sits in a U.S. prison and, until Khalid Muhammad's recent capture, probably held more valuable information in his head about Al Qaeda's plans than anyone in their power. I have often thought Yousef would make a prime candidate for a little sodium pentothal.

But as I've thought it through, I've reached the same conclusion as Dr. Rockford: If we let fear win -- if we let the desire to get these terrorists stampede us into sacrificing our basic standards of decency, of the rule of law, of respect for civil rights, and ultimately our national soul -- then the terrorists will have won. We can do better.

A two-sided postcard

My friend Dan Junas brought me this. I'm pretty sure he got it from our mutual friend Paul deArmond.

The Lott Brigade lives on

More proof that Republicans have shed their racist past -- by just pretending it doesn't exist:

Legislator under fire for helping 'hate group'
A state lawmaker is being criticized by a civil rights group for reserving a room at the state Capitol for what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a white supremacist hate group.

Rep. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said he reserved the Capitol auditorium for a League of the South conference on Saturday because he made a promise to a constituent who is a member of the group.

"I am not a member of the League of the South and do not endorse their views," Brewbaker told the Montgomery Advertiser on Thursday. "I'm a state representative, and if one of my constituents asked me to reserve that auditorium for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I would do so even though I do not endorse their view on the Ten Commandments or a great many other things."

Richard Cohen, general counsel for the SPLC, said he notified Brewbaker more than a month ago of the league's status as a hate group.

"The League of the South endorses Southern secession and is a white supremacist organization," Cohen wrote in a Feb. 7 letter. "In official statements, the League has said that its purpose is to ensure 'the cultural dominance of the Anglo-Celtic people and their institutions.' "

Note that later in the story, Brewbaker refers to the SPLC as a "biased" source. That's right, sir, they are biased: In favor of mainstream values like decency and fair play and equal rights. They're biased in favor of keeping the United States intact and against crass racism like that used by the League of the South. The bias of the SPLC is the same bias held by the churches and law-enforcement officials who support the SPLC.

Here's the extremely damning SPLC report on the League of the South that Brewbaker refused to bother reading:

A League of Their Own
"It is time for us, as Southern whites, to look to our own well being and defense against these thugs," [LOS President Michael Hill] wrote on AlaReb, an invitation-only, neo-Confederate discussion group on the Internet. "Moreover, it is time we demand that respectable members of the 'minority community' control their debased 'brothers and sisters.' If they refuse, then we can only believe that they secretly condone such behavior. Let us not flinch when our enemies call us 'racists'; rather, just reply with, 'So, what’s your point?' "

Or if you like, just go peruse the League of the South's Web site. [Fair warning: The main page plays incredibly annoying banjo music.] Be sure to check out the mission statement that calls for secession from the Union as well as the menu of hate-filled articles at The DixieNet Gazette. And if you like, click on that ad for the barrel of hate they unload on Abraham Lincoln.

Sometimes their own words speak volumes. As does the complicity of the Republicans who enable them.