Saturday, October 06, 2007

Roosting Chickens, Part I

It's not really a chicken. It's a golden eagle!

-- by Sara

Watching televangelists and other righteous public worthies spectacularly self-destruct hasn't been news since Sister Aimee wandered out of the Sonoran desert with lurid tales of kidnap and torture (she'd actually been off on holiday with her lover) all the way back in 1926. In fact, in the decades since, it's grown into an enduringly popular national sport, which really took off with the 1980s glory days of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and has really come into its own with the emergence of modern morality all-stars like Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind.

But, surprising as it may seem, there's always been a quieter handful of the breed who actually did manage to keep their houses in order and their noses reasonably clean -- whose consistent behavior through the years at least inspired confidence that they were guys who actually tried to walk their impossible talk. Jerry Falwell. Rex Humbard. And, before any of them, Oral Roberts -- who, arguably, was also the first national evangelist to exploit the TV medium, paving the way for Falwell, Robertson, and all the others who followed.

Others came and went in their various blazes of ignominy; but Roberts went on the TV air in 1952, and soldiered on through the decades. What his outfit lacked in flash, it made up for in sheer consistency. He didn't go in for politics in a big way; and his donors had the satisfaction of seeing the (sometimes literally) concrete results of their donations: new missions, new ministers, and over-the-top futuristic new buildings at Oral Roberts University campus (the aesthetic of which suggested that the Jetsons were expected to settle on the Oklahoma prairie). The Tulsa university got a sterling reputation for training capable pastors, many of whom (like Joel Osteen, Ron Luce, Ted Haggard, and Carleton Pearson) went on to lead some of the country's biggest megachurches and fundamentalist organizations.

Mindful of their working-class audience, the Roberts carefully avoided the ostentation that characterized the Bakkers and the more recent Prosperity Gospel preachers. Roberts had his moments of deliciously delirious promotional excess (God allegedly commissioned him to cure cancer in 1983; and returned in 1987 to hold him for $8 million in ransom money, which he raised with some to spare); but in the bizarro world of televangelism, he was actually a bit more down-to-earth than most.

One of Roberts' unique attributes was that he laid out plan for his own succession -- and then actually carried it off. His handsome and charismatic son, Richard, had grown up before the faithful's eyes singing as a teenager on Dad's TV show. It seemed comfortable and easy (as these things go) when Richard began stepping up in the early 90s to take over pieces of the empire. Now, Dad's retired to California, and Richard runs the whole show.

Given all that history, it's kind of sad, in a twisted schadenfreude sort of way, to note this item from the AP's Justin Juozapavicius:
Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors' expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter's senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.

She is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as "underage males."....San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, a member of the ORU board of regents, said the university's executive board "is conducting a full and thorough investigation."

...The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by three former professors. They sued ORU and Roberts, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school's involvement in a local political race.

Richard Roberts, according to the suit, asked a professor in 2005 to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner's bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university's nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.

The professors also said their dismissals came after they turned over to the board of regents a copy of a report documenting moral and ethical lapses on the part of Roberts and his family. The internal document was prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts' sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit.

An ORU student repairing Cantese's laptop discovered the document and later provided a copy to one of the professors.

It details dozens of alleged instances of misconduct. Among them:

• Mrs. Roberts — who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU's "first lady" on the university's Web site — frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to "underage males who had been provided phones at university expense."

• The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an "evangelistic function of the president."

• Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico's clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, "As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off." The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.

• Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.

• University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts' home to do the daughters' homework.

• The Roberts' home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.
This story's got it all. The corruption charge is almost small potatoes, when you consider the ways mega-churches all over the country routinely dance all over lines of the IRS's no-politicking rules. But Mrs. Roberts' extravagance (you have to wonder why she didn't just cut a promo deal with Chico's to provide her with a show wardrobe, like almost everybody else in TV does), plus that oh-so-discreet hint of improper behavior with male students (ORU's mascot is the golden eagle, not the cougar), plus the fact that this laundry list of sins against the family business was compiled by a family member, all point to a pile of tantalizing hints that the old man may soon live to see his empire go down in the biggest blaze of money, sex, and greed since Heritage USA. In the meantime, sports fans, stock up on popcorn.

As with the Bakkers' empire, the real tragedy here is that those eleven remodels and $30,000 vacations and fabulous shopping bills are financed by the Roberts clan's donors -- most of them working-class or retired people who live on macaroni and peanut butter and nick bits out of their retirement accounts so they can scrape together an extra $20 a month to help the good reverend in his Great Work. The Roberts family's entire fortune is built on the mites of widows who sent the money gladly, trusting in their stewardship and believing it would be used to reach loftier goals than private jet vacations and ponies for the kids.

These people, like the victims of televangelists all the way back to Aimee, were cheated, lied to, and swindled. Somewhere along the line, the Roberts clan apparently lost sight of the calluses on the hands that fed their sweet lives, and came to regard their supporters as simple marks to be taken for whatever they were worth. The only thing that wasn't contemptible about these people, it seems, was their money.

And maybe that was inevitable. As John Dean's been forcefully arguing lately, whenever you put conservatives in charge of government, you will very soon find your government mired in corruption and scandal. As the long history of imploding televangelists shows, there's probably a corollary to Dean's Law of Corruption that applies to the inevitable corruption of conservative-run religious enterprises as well.

Friday, October 05, 2007

My interview with Medved

-- by Dave

I did a phone interview with Michael Medved earlier this week about his column on slavery in America, and you can read the transcript today at Crosscut. There's a full set of links there to some of the other reaction in the blogosphere.

Some thoughts on the interview:

I'd researched the background on this and noticed that the slavery piece was the second part of a series beginning with an earlier piece about the "myth" of Native American genocide. (I've written recently on this topic myself,.) So I approached the matter curious to see what Medved's argument was based on, since I've heard similar arguments emanating from the neo-Confederate/home-schooling set based on purely spurious work.

Medved, at least, builds his case on facts taken from some serious historians, including David Brion Davis and Guenter Lewy. Mind you, his approach is highly selective, and his opening, and central, argument is dubious at best. But as he points out, he's not being just wacky.

And just for the record: Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" response left me scratching my head: "Ah, hey Mike -- you hear about Appomatox Courthouse? Jefferson Davis getting arrested? Michael, good God, go back to reviewing movies!" Well, I get it: He's suggesting Medved is a Confederate sympathizer unaware that his side lost. Still, Davis was never arrested that I'm aware of, and the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomatox doesn't have anything to do with Medved's argument, which is about America's relative virtue when it comes to slavery. I'm not taking Medved's side, but we do need to argue honestly.

On that score, however, I think it's important to take stock of Medved's approach, which isn't quite Malkinesque but still something of an abuse of the historical record. Simultaneously, his argument is morally muddled at best.

See, for instance, this exchange:
Neiwert: I think the line that caught a lot of people’s attention was the following: “Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean.” It’s hard not to read that as saying that this was a horrible thing for the slave owners to go through.

Medved: No, that’s not what I meant at all, and obviously I’ll want to reword that. What I’m saying is that it is horrifying that they had the level of death that they did in the Middle Passage given the fact that they had every interest in keeping people alive. In other words, when you talk about estimates, and I acknowledge, in my piece, that up to one third of slaves in the Middle Passage perished – when you’re dealing with that kind of death when it is clearly not deliberate, then it is even more horrifying than it would have been if it had been deliberate. Because what it suggests is that the conditions were so abysmal and that the risks of oceangoing transport were so huge at that time, that even with every motivation in the world to keep people alive they were unable to do it.

I'm sorry, but I'd frankly have found it more horrifying if it had been intentional, but the callousness that wrought these inhumane conditions is indeed quite horrific as well. Moreover, these slave traders knew full well before embarking that many aboard were going to die and calculated the costs accordingly -- which is to say, there was a full measure of intention in these deaths regardless of the magic of the marketplace and profit motives. Medved's distinction is so fine and so dubious that you have to wonder why he bothers drawing it.

Then check the point in the interview where we start discussing Col. John Chivington (of "Nits make lice" infamy) and the Sand Creek Massacre, and he says:
OK, let’s break it down. Who was Col. Chivington?

DN: He was the commander of the Colorado Militia at the time.

MM: So then he was not a government – in other words, this is like, if you will, the 19th-century equivalent of the Minutemen. This is not official government policy. The Army had a very different attitude. And again, in that case, no one would ever claim that there weren’t cruelties and that there wasn’t mistreatment, but to suggest that there was a genocidal policy going all the way back to the early days of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior -- Carl Schurz was the Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes Administration and he was actually criticized because they said that he was too compassionate.

This description of the role of the Colorado Militia at Sand Creek borders on the nonsensical. In point of fact, militias were the main form of organized military force in America at the time and had been for most of its history up until (the United States did not create a standing army until after the turn of the 20th century). Suggesting that Chivington's fully armed and drilled militia unit was somehow comparable to the band of xenophobic vigilantes who call themselves the Minutemen is ludicrous to the point of dishonesty.

In point of fact, Chivington's militia was not only the representative of the local government -- and certainly the popular will in Colorado, avidly cheered on by the local press -- the Army officers involved played a dubious role in setting up the Sand Creek Massacre as well. I give a reasonably full description of the sequence of events here. As I note there:
Whatever sympathy some humanitarian whites may have had for the natives, they were utterly ineffectual in stopping the wave of murderous bigotry that swept away all their good intentions along with the Indians themselves, fueled by the prevailing view of Indians that equated them with the beasts they encountered in this wilderness.

These encounters increased, of course, because the "permanent Indian frontier" turned out to be a very flexible concept indeed. As the Americans' thirst for land and for gold grew, so did the borders of the frontier shift ever westward, consumed by treaties that often were mere ruses for outright land theft. A promise made to an Indian was innately nonbinding. The murder of an Indian was considered, if not a non-event, cause for celebration; but any retaliatory murder of whites provoked indiscriminate slaughter and justified the genocide of entire peoples.

... This pattern repeated itself almost endlessly. Rather than even endure contact with "savages" they fully expected to turn against them and murder them, the settlers moving westward in the end always chose to act preemptively and slaughter Indians as they found them. This was particularly the case wherever gold entered into the picture.

And always, this spasm of eliminationist violence was preceded by eliminationist rhetoric. Before there was action, there was talk. And the talk not only rationalized the violence that proceeded, but actually had the function of creating permission for it.

The Chivington case was particularly illustrative, because fueling the whole tragedy was the bloodlust for wiping out the Indians on the part of the large majority of settlers -- that is, they fully intended to commit genocide and had no compunction whatsoever about it:
Chivington and his men returned to Denver in triumph, claiming to have killed five hundred warriors -- instead of ninety-eight women and children and a handful of mostly old men. The Rocky Mountain News pronounced it a "brilliant feat of arms." "All did nobly," Chivington said, and one evening during intermission at the Denver opera house, one hundred Cheyenne scalps were put on display while the orchestra played patriotic airs and the audience stood to applaud the men who had taken them.

As word of these atrocities got out, there was a perhaps predictable outcry from white Americans with some vestige of human decency; but their outrage, as always, had no effect. The killers were downright gleeful about their "victory." David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, notes that the Rocky Mountain News declared that "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east."

Still, there was an outcry in Congress, and a Senate report eventually declared Chivington's "battle" what it really was: "a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty." As Stannard notes [p. 134]:

One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and "picked up the skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed," later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado's governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to "civilize" the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, "there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield -- a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house -- 'EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!' "

The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing was ever done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."

It's important to understand that this was hardly isolated to Colorado -- in fact, these attitudes were extremely common among whites throughout the West, and they informed the government's actions nearly every step of the way. (Thus Teddy's avid approval.)

And where those steps took the United States was in fact the near-complete extermination of American Indians. The federal government's stated policy may never have been so bald as to outright advocate murder (this was not the case with local government officials, who often were quite upfront about it), but "plausible deniability" existed long before the term came along to describe it. What a detailed look at the record consistently reveals is that government officials, both federal and local, endorsed and undertook policies that directly, and often deliberately, led to armed confrontations with American Indians the latter could not win and which guaranteed their murder under the aegis of "war."

In other words, all the moral relativism innate in the notion that the lack of official evil intent and the presence of liberal good intentions (yes, Michael, the opponents of slavery and mistreatment of the Indians were all liberals in their time) somehow excused the actual outcome is washed away in the stark realities that slavery, with all its attendant inhumanity and death, was a significant founding institution of America, and that the conquest of American lands against its native inhabitants was infected throughout with a popular impulse to exterminate them with extreme prejudice -- an impulse that in fact won out.

And this is what's wrong with Medved's overarching argument: He wants to "normalize" these travesties so that those who want to tout the greatness of the American can do so unfettered. To wit:
Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Medved's argument seems clearly to be a defense of American exceptionalism, and his defense falls woefully short. Medved openly admits that slavery was a misbegotten institution, and that Native Americans were inhumanely mistreated, yet his argument basically is that it wasn't as bad as some critics would make it out to be. Perhaps not, but it's nonetheless quite bad; ethnic cleansing may not be as egregious a sin as genocide, yet if its outcome is the same, what exactly is the moral difference anyway? Good intentions that bring about mass death are a travesty regardless.

What most of the critics of this exceptionalism actually like to point out is not so much that we are hopelessly corrupt, but that we really aren't all that exceptional. Yes, we have great things to be proud of, but we also have ugly mistakes to be ashamed of. That makes us a lot more like everyone else.

The historical record -- the full record, and not just snippets -- simply demonstrates that the America's claims to moral greatness are more tenuous than we pretend. The notion that we are "history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity" is complicated by the reality that at times we Americans have represented the opposites of freedom, goodness, and dignity.

Just ask the people of Iraq.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The GOP's wide stance

-- by Dave

From Colin McEnroe we get news of the Republican Party's new logo for its 2008 Convention.

Really. It's not a joke. And yes, it's just your filthy imagination that the elephant seems to be doing something to the 2008.

It does seem inspired by Larry Craig, for some reason. And since this convention is in Minneapolis, that only makes it doubly fitting.

You'll have to forgive us, however, if we get it confused with previous GOP logos. For instance:

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The lonely haters

-- by Dave

Peter Rugg, a reporter for The Pitch, an alternative newsweekly in Kansas City, recently went undercover to report on a local Klan group.

This is not a reportorial technique I recommend. I know a lot of people question the ethics of deceptiveness in the course of fact gathering as a journalist, though I notice that most of the handwringing in these cases is done by people with all the investigative instincts God gave Elmer Fudd. Still, going undercover to check out Nazis can be bad for your health, so I don't recommend it. (Same with, say, Latin American drug cartels and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.) So I have to tip my hat to brave souls like Rugg.

It's an excellent and fairly clear-eyed portrait of what these groups -- which usually consist of a tiny handful of fairly pathetic souls -- are like in real life:
Turk was short and fat, and the black hat he wore was stitched with a skull and bones. The visible sides of his head had been shaved, but when he turned, I could see the end of a limp mohawk. He giggled when he said "nigger" or "Jew," like a little kid with a pornographic picture, not quite understanding what he sees but sure it's something naughty. His face swelled up like a bullfrog whenever this happened. He ordered a glass of beer.

"Independence used to be real Klan-friendly," he told me. "People would just pick up the phone book and randomly call people, asking them about joining the Klan or telling them about us. And they wouldn't hang up. I go down to the Apple Market there once a month or so and put up some literature on the community bulletin board. Most times when I go back, it's still there. Maybe people don't notice it."

"So how'd you decide to join up?" I asked.

"I used to live in San Antonio until five years ago, and we just had all these wetbacks moving in. And I couldn't get a parking spot on my own street, they'd bring so many of them to live with them," he said. "Then one day, I saw chickens in one of their yards. I think there was even a fucking goose. That was it for me."

"Wow, a goose?" I marveled that someone would join a hate group based on a lack of parking.

"A fucking goose. I couldn't take it anymore. So I joined up. My wife wasn't too happy about it. I'm divorced now. But then she'd tell me to take my Knights diploma down because I kept that up on the bedroom wall. And I have a bloodstained Confederate flag wallpaper on my computer, and she'd get nervous her parents would see that when they came to visit."

Turk worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. He planned to get a teaching degree and work in education full time. But his day job was in customer service at a drug company in downtown Kansas City.

That's just a snippet. The whole piece is worth reading.

Meanwhile, this weekend's Hammerfest gathering of skinheads in Portland -- at an as-yet-undisclosed location -- should be a pretty tiny little hatefest:
Portland State University sociology prof Randy Blazak, chair of the Portland-based Coalition Against Hate Crimes, would be surprised if Volksfront’s card-carrying members topped 50.

“They’re probably getting smaller all the time,” he says.

Blazak says Hammerskin Nation might have picked Portland for its event because groups like it have long looked to the region for the so-called “Northwest Imperative.” The imperative is the two-decade-old idea started by the white supremacist group Aryan Nations that Oregon, Washington and Idaho will someday secede to create an autonomous Aryan homeland.

It's probably the same little clutch of folks who brought us the Nazifest in Olympia last year. Plus or minus a few.

Of course, that's the thing about these characters: laugh all we like, it only takes a few of them to make a lot of trouble. Four years ago, a couple of Hammerskin concertgoers at a similar gig near Portland warmed up for the festivities by assaulting a young black man.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I've been busy

-- by Dave

Some of you may have noticed that I began guest-blogging this week at The Big Con, Rick Perlstein's blog for the Campaign for America's Future. I was pleased and honored when Rick asked if I'd like to be a regular contributor -- I'm a big fan of both his journalistic work and his blog. I'll be posting on Mondays, and it'll all be original content, so be sure to look for it there, though I'll be posting links here as well.

The first one went up yesterday: The Right's Base Behavior


And while I'm at it, be sure to check out a piece I published last week at Crosscut examining how well Seattle police are handling bias-crime investigations. I put a lot of work into this one, and even though it's about local police work, I think you'll be able to see it has broader ramifications:

Crimes of hate: Sometimes justice is blind to the obvious

In the meantime, stay tuned for our regular postings ...

Oprah the Nazi

-- by Dave

As Sara just noted, there's a terrific post by Glenn Greenwald about the right's increasing tendency to call liberals (and anyone else it disagrees with) "Nazis" and similar epithets.

And if you want a crystal-clear example of this, Spocko once again caught a radio talk-show host -- in this case, Bryan Suits of Seattle's KVI-AM actually calling Oprah Winfrey a Nazi:
Does the fact that only Barak Obama is -- well, the only presidential candidate that will appear on Oprah's show, does that make her a Nazi racist? Is it mutually exclusive that a black woman can be a also a Nazi? I don't think so. I frankly think she is a Nazi.

... I think she has a right to do what she is going to do, I think it makes her a racist though. And I'm not goin' use any kind of coded language or whatever. Anyone can be a racist, we all understand that right? Anyone can be prejudiced and I think she's prejudiced. I I don't think that Barak Obama is anything except a guy who's capable of of well-delivered high sounding rhetoric, but when one asks him for specifics eh his depth suddenly shows itself.

So, the fact that Oprah not only, and I don't have, I throughly understand why a racist would support someone of their own race. I get that, but the fact that she's excluding other candidates first of all-- as someone with a talk show I'll tell you yeah it's her right but it means something, it is revealing something, it's revealing that you are close minded. So if somebody can take her side, and like I say, I know that none of you watch Oprah, certainly no men do, but your friends do, so if you can explain to me why your friends don't think that she's a racist Nazi fraud, I'm curious, but like I say, it is her right.

Good God, where to begin?

First, it has to be pointed out that Nazism is specifically a white-supremacist ideology. Unless Oprah is actually supporting someone who spouts that belief system and openly endorses it herself -- which would mean, roughly, that hell had become an arctic tundra -- it's not even remotely accurate to call her a Nazi.

As someone who reports on and deals with the activities of very real Nazis, this kind of nonsense is extremely aggravating, because as I've been arguing for some time, this kind of rhetorical laziness -- which also is not uncommon on the left, frankly -- not only is patently absurd, it actually distorts, disguises, and downplays the very real harm and social havoc wreaked by these kinds of hate groups. As Sara says, "it also drains the political meaning out of the words we use to analyze and describe fascism, opening the way to a total reversal of their historic meanings."

Real Nazis -- and real racists of all stripes -- do not merely indulge in coy alliances with people of their own race. They also constantly belittle people of other races, constantly depict them as vicious and diseased subhumans, constantly concoct bizarre "conspiracies" in which these "vermin" are engaged to destroy the superior race (namely, theirs).

Let's look at Bryan Suits' Bizarro Universe logic: He's claiming that Winfrey's open support of Obama is de facto evidence of her racism -- even though he will not be able to find a single show, or even a single line of transcript, indicating that she's doing so because he is black. No, according to Suits, we can presume that this is the case simply because Winfrey is black too.

So let's use a little Bryan Suits Logic here. If we can presume that Winfrey prefers Obama because he is black, can we similarly presume that Suits opposes him for the same reason? After all, he says: "I throughly understand why a racist would support someone of their own race."

Let's continue with the same logic: The Republican Party is only running white candidates -- candidates who can't even bring themselves to participate in a debate on minority issues -- and we all know the reasons why. I guess that must make the GOP the Nazi Party. Right, Bryan?

Well, forget all this nonsense. Here's the truth:

Oprah is neither a racist nor a Nazi, and there's nothing innately racist in her support of Obama, no more than Republicans' support of exclusively white candidates.

And Bryan Suits is a grotesquely irresponsible smear merchant who has no business being on the air.

If you feel like letting Suits' bosses at Fisher Communications know how you feel, here's their contact info:

100 4th Ave North
Suite 510
Seattle, WA 98109

Larry Roberts—Vice President and General Manager
140 4th Ave North
Seattle, WA 98109

Or you can just contact the station itself.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Stealing Fascism

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels

-- by Sara

Over at Salon this morning, Glenn Greenwald makes the case that the past several months have seen an escalation of right-wing rhetoric that's blatantly attempting to link words like "Nazi," "fascist," "Gestapo," and "holocaust" with the behavior of the left.

He documents this trend chapter and verse, from Bill O'Reilly blasting of Daily Kos as a Naziesque hate site to Tammy Bruce calling Jane Hamsher (of all people) out as a "fascist" and as a "Gestapo" organization. Evidently, Fox News's commentators have seized on this meme with gusto, and are running with it as far as they can make it stretch.

What's especially interesting about this, says Glenn, is that there was a time not so long ago (as recently as last spring, in fact, as Dick Durbin could tell you), that groups like the Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League instantly set the dogs on anybody who engaged in this kind of rhetoric. They saw clearly that setting up these kinds of equivalencies could only trivialize the unspeakable horrors that the Nazis perpetrated, and dangerously dilute the serious denotations and connotations these words carry for us. But, says Glenn, that's not the case any more:
Now, however, "Nazi" and "Hitler" comparisons have become, by far, the most common political insult on the Right, and these same Jewish advocacy groups are defeaningly silent. It is not merely that every new country on which the Right's war-crazed faction wants to wage war is "Nazi Germany" and every new leader -- or even every political functionary -- that does not submit completely to America's will is "Hitler." That is true, and it provokes no protests. But the casual, indiscriminate use of "Hitler" and "Nazism" as political exploitation is much more pervasive even than that.

Just in the past few months alone, there is virtually no prominent anti-war or liberal group that has not been branded as Hitler and Nazis by the most influential factions on the Right. If one's goal were to trivialize Hitler and Nazism and the Holocaust, one would do exactly what the Right is doing -- brand every political opponent as Hitler and Nazis on a virtually daily basis. Yet the groups that have anointed themselves proprietors of those terms, and which have in the past expressed such righteous outrage when those terms were used against the Right, sit by meekly and silently.
Glenn's absolutely right -- as far as he goes. But since Orcinus' core mission, from the start, has been to analyze the appropriate use of these words and concepts in the modern American context -- and to exchange heat for light where their wrong-headed use is concerned -- I'd like to take Glenn's point another step further.

Letting the right get away with this doesn't just trivialize the horrors of Nazism. Worse, in the long run: it also drains the political meaning out of the words we use to analyze and describe fascism, opening the way to a total reversal of their historic meanings.

The bald historical truth is that fascism always comes out of the right wing. Its proponents are, on one hand, economic royalists working their will by merging their corporations with the government; and on the other, rural True Believers willing to commit violence to perpetuate their own serfdom. Dave's been making the point here for upwards of five years that America will not be a fascist state until the merging of these two factions takes place. Until then, the current right-wing government can best be described as "proto-fascist" -- a situation in which most of the ingredients of fascism are present, but the actual catalyst that pulls them into a coherent and functioning system of government has not yet occurred.

While leftists can certainly be totalitarians (as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao amply demonstrated), they're not fascist. The right wing is often confused on this point; but we should not be. The 20th-century communist experiments threw the corporations overboard, and relied on bureaucracy and urban-based secret police rather than rural thugs to keep people in line. It's the same authoritarian impulse -- and thus no less ugly in the end -- but it's not correct to call it fascist.

This is how fascism has been defined by political scientists and historians around the world for upwards of 80 years now -- and this is the definition that Fox News and its spittle-flecked minions are messing with. Trivializing the language of fascism, and thus severing it from its long-held meanings, is the first step.

But the deeper danger here is that it softens us up for the next step, which is to re-define those words in ways that they apply exclusively to the left.

If the right can pull off this semantic trick, they win in two ways. First, we will no longer be able to have serious conversations -- like the ones we've had here for the past four-plus years -- about the very real ways in which American conservatives are pulling us toward genuine fascism. They'll have stolen away the language that will allow us to convict them of their crimes against democracy. We won't be able to measure their deeds by holding them up against those of previous right-wing authoritarians -- the comparisons will be simply impossible, because the definitions of the terms will be too murky to be useful. Or worse: they'll now mean something else entirely.

(The seething motivation behind this attempt at re-definition becomes all too clear when you recall that Robert Paxton, the leading scholar on the history of fascism, believes that first fascist organization in history was the KKK -- which brought together the political (and sometimes blood) ancestors of the very same people who are trying to pull off this definitional double-shuffle now.)

Which brings us to the second threat. Having stolen these words, they will then be able to turn them back on us -- and we will be totally unable to answer their charges. We will be the new "Gestapo," trying to perpetrate a "holocaust" against Christians and conservatives and unborn Americans and anybody who feels threatened by fact and reason. And, as Dave has often argued, this is precisely the kind of rhetoric that always precedes eliminationist campaigns. If the right wing can convince the average American that liberals are the real "Nazis" who must be purged from their midst, they'll have scored a stunning propaganda coup -- one which will justify all manner of violence against anyone who disagrees with them.

The sobering thing about this is that this kind of semantic theft is a well-known stock-in-trade of real fascists. The very fact that they're even trying this is absolutely typical of the breed as historians and scholars understand it. We know they can do it: we've already watched them steal words like "freedom," "Christianity," "rights," "justice," and even "life" itself away from us. In stealing the very meaning out of our language, they are also stealing our voices -- which ensures that if the day comes when they'd rather act than talk, we will be rendered completely mute, unable to make people understand our protests no matter how loudly we scream.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

One to watch for

-- by Dave

Here's a film I'm going to make sure I see. It's titled Banished:
It is not just historical accident that Boone County, which includes Harrison, has only 40 or so African-Americans among its 34,000 residents. Nor that Forsyth County, Ga., Washington County, Ind., Pierce City, Mo., and dozens of other counties and municipalities in the Midwest and South are nearly or totally all-white today. From the end of the Civil War through the 1920s, many rural communities systematically purged their black residents, driving them out with implicit or explicit threats of violence. Sometimes these blacks were allowed to sell their land, albeit under duress and at discount prices. Often they were simply driven off, forced to abandon homes and land and flee for their lives.

Hardly anyone now living witnessed these events, but as Williams' film forcefully demonstrates, the wounds have nowhere near healed. Descendants of displaced African-Americans have passed the stories down as formative family legend, and while whites are far more eager to bury the past, many remain uncomfortably aware that something unsavory lingers at the farthest edges of community memory.

Williams focuses on three areas with distinct and disparate histories: Forsyth County today is a bedroom community on the outer suburban fringe of Atlanta, anxious to present itself as part of the tolerant New South, unshackled from the past. Yet Forsyth was the site of one of the most extensive ethnic cleansing campaigns anywhere in the country; as recently as 1987, a multiracial Martin Luther King Day march was viciously attacked by an angry white mob. Meanwhile, the descendants of black landowners driven out in 1912 have begun to seek restitution or reparations for land that was apparently stolen from them, a movement vigorously resisted by white legal and political authorities.

... Back in Bob Scott's Arkansas town, the racism is more overt than in other communities. Williams has a surprisingly polite conversation with Thom Robb, head of the local Ku Klux Klan, who amiably tells him that cross burning is an ancient Scottish rite (not, of course, an act of racial hatred) but that on the whole he thinks Harrison is better off as a white town. At the same time, Harrison's white residents have done more to confront the problem than anyone in the other two areas: Local preachers have held days of prayer and atonement; volunteers helped renovate a black church in a neighboring county; a scholarship was established for African-American student-athletes from other towns.

"Banished" offers a startling tour into an unforgotten history that remains invisible to most Americans, with the erudite Williams, who is simultaneously polite and confrontational, as our host. It would be ludicrous to suggest that he doesn't take sides: Williams clearly believes that a major historical crime has been swept under the rug, and his film is loaded with moments of understated emotional power. When the black Strickland family of Atlanta find a neglected and overgrown family burial ground on white-owned land in Forsyth County, and kneel there in prayer not far from the current residents' Confederate-flag-bedecked pickup, all the legal questions and ethical quandaries fade into the background.

It sounds like the hidden history of 'sundown towns' is finally bubbling its way to the surface. And not a moment too soon.