Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The elimination game

Probably the most striking scene in Patrice O'Neill's excellent P.O.V. documentary currently airing on PBS, "The Fire Next Time," involves my friend Brenda Kitterman teaching her two teenage daughters how to use a handgun.

The girls were more or less forced to learn because Elizabeth, the elder of the two, began speaking out against right-wing hate groups at her Kalispell, Montana, school in emulation of her mom, and was subsequently threatened and had her tires slashed. Their family was subjected to a barrage of threatening phone calls and late-night visitations from strange men in their yard, one of them shouting at the mother to come out. The elder daughter was being followed home from her job every night.

It was part of a campaign of right-wing intimidation of conservationists and "liberals" in Montana's Flathead Valley, a phenomenon I've described in some detail previously. The Kittermans were hardly alone in facing this kind of harassment, but they experienced an especially intense version of it.

So we see Brenda, who is an ex-cop and more than familiar with firearms, teaching her daughters how to hold the gun, aim properly, and squeeze off a shot at a silhouette target. Trisha, the younger of the two, is uncertain whether she can actually pull the trigger on another person, so they sit down to talk about it, and Brenda advises her not to carry a gun until she's sure she can use it. Trisha nods, and agrees, then tucks her face into her arms and silently begins to cry.

This was one of the more vivid sequences in the film's depiction of the dynamic that hits any community when hateful eliminationist rhetoric takes root. Just as striking for me, in a low-key way, was how it demonstrated the chilling and intimidating effect that such thuggishness can have on ordinary people. As the film's advance text explains:
Nothing was more telling -- and is more disquieting in "The Fire Next Time" -- than the community's reaction to discovery of Project 7, its cache of guns and its hit list. The targets, after all, were not distant officials or outsider bureaucrats. They were everyone's longtime neighbors, including popular Police Chief Frank Garner and Sheriff Jim Dupont. And while many citizens, like Brenda Kitterman and newly elected Mayor Pam Kennedy, felt immediately moved to rally in protest, there was a degree of denial about the potential danger. Those accused of being terrorists were also neighbors, who had carved out a place for their views in public meetings and on the radio. For elected officials like Pam Kennedy and Gary Hall, the daily blast of on-air attacks turns public life into a risky proposition, given the real threat from Project 7. The result was also a spreading fear as people began to weigh the costs of speaking out.

I thought this was particularly embodied in an interview with the family of Mike Raiman, a Flathead Valley conservationist who took a leading role in standing up to the hateful talk that emanated from the likes of local right-wing radio talk-show host John Stokes.

Raiman is a grandfather, and both of his sons are in their early 30s with families of their own, though they work with him and have supported him throughout his ordeal -- in some cases, coming in for abuse themselves. But the elder of the two sons, you can tell, is weary of it all and wary too: he has a family to think about, and their safety is paramount to him. He doesn't know how much longer he can keep it up. You can't really blame him.

That's how eliminationist hate works, regardless of its target: Its aim is to threaten and intimidate not merely the immediate target, but anyone who might think of speaking out on their behalf. This cuts the target off from the community support it might normally enjoy and leaves them feeling even more isolated.

What, really, is eliminationism?

It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.

I first encountered it in Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, which is in many regards a problematic text, especially insofar as it describes prewar German society as almost uniquely predisposed to antisemitism. But Goldhagen's text correctly identifies and describes the essence of the Nazi campaign against the Jews as eliminationist in nature, something that was made undeniably manifest in the Holocaust.

But while eliminationism's most startling historical example was provided by the Nazis, it also has a long and appalling history in the annals of American democracy. It was manifest in the genocidal wars against Native Americans, when "the only good Indian was a dead Indian": in the many anti-immigrant campaigns waged by Nativists of many different stripes; in night-riding Ku Klux Klansmen, Jim Crow segregation, and the lynch mobs who murdered thousands of innocent blacks during the heyday of white supremacism; in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II; in the continuing march of hate crimes that target various kinds of "undesirable" members of society for terrorization and exclusion; and in the lingering far-right "militias" and related hate groups who scapegoat minorities and immigrants, gays and lesbians, government officials, and liberals generally, making them the targets of both hateful rhetoric and actual violence.

Eliminationism in truth forms the really hateful, violent core of fascism, the facet that distinguishes the real item from its pseudo manifestations (though of course not all eliminationism is necessarily fascist). It glories in violence, in action over intellect, and always insists, of course, that it represents the true national identity.

Rhetorically, it takes on some distinctive shapes. It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself -- unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and loves to incessantly suggest that its targets are themselves disease carriers. A close corollary -- but not as nakedly eliminationist -- are claims that the opponents are traitors or criminals, or gross liabilities for our national security, and thus inherently fit for elimination.

And yes, it's often voiced as crude "jokes", the humor of which, when analyzed, is inevitably predicated on a venomous hatred.

But what we also know about this rhetoric is that, as surely as night follows day, this kind of talk eventually begets action, with inevitably tragic results.

While in recent years much of this activity tends to be relegated to fringe behavior, it's disturbing to observe this trend treading out of the fringes and increasingly back into the mainstream, as it did in the Flathead Valley -- and moreover, as it is doing on a national mainstream level. It's worth remembering, of course, that there have been many instances when eliminationism was very much part of mainstream American culture, and there's no reason to believe it couldn't happen again.

I was reminded of this the other night when I was talking to the very nice-sized audience that turned out for my reading from Strawberry Days at Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle. In the front row was an elderly Nisei woman I didn't know, but later found out was Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who had authored her own book on the internment, Looking Like the Enemy (and an excellent book it is).

I had earlier in the evening discussed how difficult it was for white people in the spring of 1942 to stand up and publicly defend their Japanese neighbors, pointing out that the few who did were subjected to "Jap lover" epithets, sneering attacks on their motives, and in some cases threats.

Ms. Gruenewald asked an interesting question: What, she wondered, would I recommend for people today, in the current environment, should they be faced with a similar choice?

I found myself giving her an answer similar to one I've actually given many times, including during a community gathering in Kalispell the summer after the events of "The Fire Next Time" (the crew was there and filming the event, but the gathering mostly wound up on the editing floor), as well as at community discussions on hate crimes. I can't recall the exact words, but it went something like this:
I think it's important for people to understand the value of standing up and making their voices heard, regardless of the threats that may come their way. Failing to do so will make our communities less safe, places we don't want to bring our children up in anyway. And when people find the courage to stand up and be counted, they'll quickly realize that they are not alone, that others will be there to stand beside them. We're the true silent majority, and tragedies like the internment only happen because too many of us lack the courage to make our voices heard. If the internment offers us any real lessons for today, it's that we cannot repeat the same mistake.

Now, I have to admit to being amused by Rev. Mykeru's recent takedown of a right-wing intimidation artist who calls himself "Lord Spatula," who has a habit of spewing all kinds of vile eliminationist rhetoric in the direction of a number of liberals who post on the Internet, including various threats of physical harm. Mykeru called him on his bluff, arranged a halfway meeting place, and told Lord Spatula to show up for an ass-kicking. Spatula, of course, backed down.

I can't say I endorse Mykeru's tactics, as satisfying as they might be, since they come down to promising actual violence, and being prepared to carry it out. But it's well worth remembering what his little exercise clearly revealed: Bigmouthed bullies are all, at their core, pathetic cowards. When they are confronted, they run away. They may lob a few shots in retreat, but they always run away. Unless, of course, we cede the field to them.

And eliminationism, in all its myriad forms, is in the end nothing but pure bullying. The sooner we begin confronting it, the more certain we are to halt its spread.

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