Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Worst-Case Scenarios

-- by Sara

I woke up this morning to the cheerful news (brought by my CAF colleague Bill Scher, who served it up with my daily Progressive Breakfast) that Andrew Sullivan had graced yours truly with a nomination for his "Michael Moore Award," which is apparently given to anyone on the progressive side who he thinks is being shrill, outrageous, and simply over-the-top.

This dubious honor was conferred on the basis of the following paragraph, clipped from yesterday's post (which Dave cross-posted to Crooks & Liars) on the potential right-wing backlash that may result if California's Prop 8 is overturned today:
"In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I've noted, everything I'm seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it's not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start -- or at least support -- a civil war over this."
It's not the only criticism I've gotten along these lines in the past 24 hours, so I thought a response might be in order.

The key words in that paragraph are the opening ones: In the worst case. This phrase means something very specific to me, and to anyone who's done planning or foresight work. The best way to figure out what you're likely to face in the future is to develop supportable, fact-based scenarios that cover the full range of bases, which are typically summarized as:
* The most likely case (if all current trends continue -- which actually only occurs less than half the time)

* The best case (if everything goes right)

* A couple of high-impact, low-probability cases (black swans, wild cards -- rare, but totally disruptive if they do happen)

* The worst case (what will happen if the most negative factors present in the scenario all come into play)
Right now, much of the country's gay leadership (including, apparently, Sully) is going on the sunny assumption that where Prop 8 is concerned, the best case is also the most likely case. The consensus seems to be that the right wing was pretty quiescent when all those other states instituted gay marriage, so there's no absolutely no reason to expect that California will be any different.

They may be right. The best case may in fact be what happens. However, it's irresponsible -- if not dangerous -- for political leaders to blithely assume that the future is settled, and simply proceed on their most optimistic assumptions without questioning them. Unfortunately, the left does this pretty routinely, which is why we're constantly being blindsided by the right.

And that's why I wrote that post. I wanted to challenge that assumption, and to shake people out of that complacency. (Which is, let me remind you, what futurists do. This my job -- what I was trained to do -- and I take it pretty seriously.) California is different, for reasons I think I made pretty clear. Massachusetts or Vermont don't have the demographic or cultural clout to change the way things are done in every corner of the country. But California does, which is precisely why it's so deeply demonized and feared by right-wingers everywhere. Furthermore, the state's courts and judges have been right-wing targets going all the way back to the 1950s' Birchers. There's history here -- and deep fear and anger that's settled in over decades. And overturning Prop 8 is the most perfect issue I can imagine to set that pot boiling all over again.

Most of yesterday's piece focused on some very specific, well-supported reasons that I think the gay community should question their complacency. It also included a most-likely scenario (assuming the court rules against Prop 8, which is in itself not a most-likely scenario), which is that a few far-right whack jobs around the country would use the event as an excuse for a fresh round of violence against gay targets. We might see another Matthew Shepherd, or another Knoxville. Or two or three. And wise people should at least prepare themselves for that possibility.

There's nothing particularly outrageous or over-the-top about this claim: this stuff happens fairly regularly in America, as I think even Sully would agree. There's always been that 2-3% of the population who are implacably and militantly on the political extremes, who aren't burdened by the same social braking systems the rest of us came equipped with, and who are prepared to act out violently if provoked. I merely pointed out that overturning Prop 8 is the most perfect imaginable example of the kind of event that might provoke them.

The worst case scenario Sully quotes above takes that forecast just one logical step farther. In addition to that 2-3%, there's a larger circle -- maybe 12-15% of the country -- who are hard-core believers in right wing ideology. These folks listen to right-wing talk radio, buy the books, and are committed to the worldview. But they're also generally hard-working, law-abiding, and often church-going people who don't pose much of a threat to anybody -- at least, not under normal conditions.

The problem is that this larger group can, on occasion, be radicalized by the smaller one into organized, sustained violent action. We've seen this happen in the past -- and invariably, it's led to the worst eliminationist excesses that dot American history. The Klan takeover of Oregon and Indiana in the 1920s was an example of this. So are the lynch mobs that enforced Jim Crow for three generations in the South. The difference between one crazy loner with a gun and a bigger mob that takes justice into its own hands almost always comes down to whether or not this larger group decides it's going to get involved.

Furthermore, as the Department of Homeland Security recently warned us, this larger group is unusually roused and anxious right now -- which means it's not out of place at all to posit a worst-case scenario in which the impending threat of nationwide gay marriage drives them to abandon political solutions and begin taking their frustrations out against gays in their own communities. If that expanded into a regional or national trend, the words "civil war" would certainly apply.

If I was throwing around scare stories that weren't rooted in history or current trends, that would indeed be over the top, and I'd be well worthy of the ignominy Sullivan is attempting to heap on my head. But it is not fearmongering to say that there are known patterns to things (including right-wing behavior), and to point out that elements of the current situation are objectively, factually, demonstrably conforming to at least some of those patterns. It's not fearmongering to challenge people's fondest assumptions about how things are working out, and to point out very plausible ways they could take a turn for the worse. It's not fearmongering to consider just how far south that turn might go before it bottoms out. And it's not fearmongering to suggest that prudent preparations, just in case, are probably in order.

Leaders of any movement to refuse to allow their assumptions to be questioned, or make a habit of ridiculing those who offer serious alternatives that challenge their happy talk, reveal a blindness that should worry us all. There is always a worst case (even if it's not the most likely case); and movements that endure are the ones who are always mindful of just how close or far away they are from ending up there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Decision Day on California's Prop 8

-- by Sara

Rainbow Bear Flag by Gilbert Baker

Tomorrow is D-Day in California: the day that the state’s Supreme Court will render its decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the initiative passed last November to put an end to legal gay marriage in the state.

Nobody has a clue which way they’re likely to rule. Activists on both sides have been scrying the tea leaves and chicken bones on this ever since the court heard the case back in March, but have divined nothing. But there’s one forecast I can offer right now: if Prop 8 is overturned by the courts, the backlash from the right is likely to be far more ferocious and intense than anybody on the left reckons right now.

In recent weeks, I’ve been in discussions with some of the state’s gay leadership about how the hardcore right across the country is likely to react if Prop 8 is overturned. From their viewpoint, even a loss in the courts will only be a momentary setback. In that case, they’ll simply put the issue back on the ballot, over and over, for as long as it takes to regain their right to marry. They know (and the most recent polls support them in this) that time, demographics, and the generally tolerant culture of California are all on their side. They may or may not be able to outspend the Mormons and the Catholics; but they know for sure that they can outwait them.

For that reason, they’re not particularly worried about the right-wing reaction to a decision in their favor. In their view, victory is (sooner or later) preordained. In the long run, the anti-gay-marriage forces are fighting a losing battle. If they’re not irrelevant now, they will be soon. And so they’re not much worried about that.

But they should be.

Yes, the right wing is losing on gay rights issues. That is, very precisely, why they’re more dangerous now than they have been in the past. Their impending irrelevance is not a reason to worry less; it’s a reason to worry more. And getting Prop 8 overturned in the courts would ignite the situation, because it will hit absolutely every angry-making right-wing button there is:

1. The biggest state in the country, comprising fully 1/8 of the nation's population, will have legal gay marriage. That, right there, will be pretty much the end of the war, and they know it. The five states currently on board are worrisome, but they're small and not considered the kind of cultural juggernaut California is.

2. Overturning Prop 8 would push every button the right wing has about Godless liberals on the coasts imposing their moral values on them. “Pushing their immorality down our throats" has always been one of rural America’s major recurring complaints, particularly among evangelicals who seriously believe that God will withdraw his special blessing from America – and possibly destroy the country -- if gays can get married. (I know, I know. But they are what they are.) While the feelings about this have always run strong and deep, they’ve become much more intense since their political power began slipping away from them in 2006, and particularly since Obama took office and they lost Congress.

In this brave new world, the perverts don't even have the basic decency to feel shame about it anymore. They don't even know where to start with that. It makes them absolutely desperate with rage.

3. The fact that the deed was done by a bunch of California liberal activist judges who had to reverse the outcome of a statewide election -- an election that every conservative church in the country had at least an emotional stake in, and often a financial stake as well -- is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. They hate judges. They really hate liberal judges. They really, really hate California liberal judges, and have since Earl Warren. Having judges undo what they considered to be a major moral victory for their side could push their fury from merely seething to absolutely explosive.

So we’re left with a scenario in which their entire moral fight for the soul of the nation was lost because of nine liberal judges in California. I can't think of a narrative more guaranteed to push every hot button on the right, unless maybe one of the judges was Perez Hilton. Naw, maybe not even then.

And you can bet that right-wing True Believers across the country are going to be looking for targets to take out their frustration on. As I’ve written recently, they already think this government is not their own, and are moving into opposition to it. They really believe that the continued greatness of America is at stake, and they are the last line of defense against complete moral chaos. If this happens, God will withdraw his blessing from the US, and America will lose everything. They will not let that happen. Passing a gay marriage law in California -- the biggest and most influential state of all -- will be their Harper's Ferry, their Pearl Harbor. After that -- the deluge.

That's why a positive decision for California’s gay community could create considerable negative -- and potentially violent -- blowback throughout the nation. Since they can't get at California’s judges, they may decide to strike out at local gays, gay-owned businesses, gay bars, and their own local judiciary, wherever they happen to be. If I were associated with any of these things in a conservative patch of the country, I'd be spending today thinking through some serious security precautions.

In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I've noted, everything I'm seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it's not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start -- or at least support -- a civil war over this.

It’s a sad irony that the best possible outcome for America’s gay movement could also turn out to be the tipping point for the biggest anti-gay, anti-liberal backlash we’ve seen yet. Tomorrow, we’ll know one way or another which way this will go – and whether a new court-ordered opportunity for America's gay community could also turn out to be a potent new source of danger from the right as well.

Update I: Some readers have suggested that I didn't make one important point clearly enough, to wit: I'm much more worried about violence in the hinterlands than I am about reactions in California. In state, the conversation is being had openly, and people are working both sides of the issue directly. 

But imagine you're a conservative living in, say, Arkansas. Imagine your working-class church raised a couple thousand dollars to promote Prop 8, and invested a lot of emotional energy in passing it, and celebrated it as a major moral victory when it succeeded. Imagine your preacher telling you that this is the Last Stand, because if California goes, the war is over and you've lost and God is going to smite America because you failed to stop Satan in time. And then imagine how you feel  -- and what you might do -- when a bunch of liberal judges snatch that huge cultural victory right out of your hands.

Or imagine that you're a wacko loner like the guy in Knoxville, who spends his days listening to Sean Hannity and believes that if the government won't keep gays in their place, it's now up to you. Or you're a guy who's recently back from the sandbox, where you got some pretty strong religion along with a whole bunch of cool commando skills and a taste for blood. So you go shoot up the local florist shop, or gay bar, or UCC congregation, in order to do your part to save America.

It's not the people in LA who worry me. They've got each other, and the cops are looking out for them. I'm worried about the people in the great Out There who are going to feel a very personal stake in this, and who are already primed to see this as the End of the World, and yet who have no legitimate standing in California's conversation either way. And I feel a certain urgency to get the heads-up to gay people who are living in these same small towns, and get them ready for the possibility that they're about to become the  most handy targets for a hot, terrifying wave of right-wing frustration.

Commenter Cyrano put it another way:

The conservatives got burned bad in the 2008 elections. Their one saving grace was their Prop 8 victory; it was like aloe on their wounds.

For them, Prop 8 affirmed that (i) the right-wing populist spirit can triumph, even in a blue state, (ii) the silent majority is on board with homophobia, and (iii) the liberals shot themselves in the foot by appealing to African-American voters who are religious and who do not like gays (haw haw, stupid liberals).

None of those things are true, but that's immaterial. The point is, it was a huge symbolic victory that let them assuage their wounded pride and crow at their enemies. To take it from them - and to do it using the courts - is going to drive them absolutely bonkers.
Can I get an amen?

Update II: The scuttlebutt on the activist lists is that the court will probably reaffirm the existing marriages, but refuse to allow new ones, effectively allowing Prop 8 to stand.

Fortunately, the polls suggest that if it went back to the ballot next year, there's a good chance a reversal would probably pass. A lot of Californians who stood on the sidelines are feeling embarrassed into action; and the African-American community in particular is realizing that if the voters can strip away gay civil rights with a wave of a ballot marker, they can strip away racial equality rights in exactly the same way -- and that's a situation that ought to make them very nervous. And then there are simply those who resent the idea that the Mormons and Catholics are imposing their values on the state, and using money raised from all over the country to do it.

So there's been considerable progress in the last six months, as people have done some more thinking on the issue, and the No on 8 organizations have continued their educational and outreach efforts. They're in this for the long haul: even if they lose tomorrow, I'd bet on them to win it in the end.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

White nationalists are serious about returning to social dominance

-- by Dave

WHAS-11, a local station in Louisville, Kentucky, ran a news story earlier this week examining the ongoing fortunes of the Imperial Klans of America, which recently lost a $2.5 million lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In spite of those setbacks, the IKA is marching onward:

"I don't believe any country can survive with multi-culturalism. I believe that we should all have our own states; we should all have our own countries. If you look at race mixing, homosexuality and abortion our race is basically being defeated. There won't be a lot of whites left in another 20 years," says Edwards.

It's Ron Edwards and other white supremacists greatest fear, a fear that's prompted countless hate crimes all over the country. Recently, in Meade County, five IKA members attacked a 15-year-old Panamanian teenager. The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded by Morris Dees, sued Ron Edwards for the attack, claiming his teachings led directly to the assault. The Southern Poverty Law Center won that case, a sweeping victory that Morris says, bankrupted the IKA organization.

"I think the case against Ron Edwards and the IKA was very successful. At the beginning of this he had 23 chapters in 17 states. Now they're down to 6 chapters in five states. The money is pretty much dried up and he's a near shadow of himself," says Morris Dees, Founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ron Edwards disagrees.

"The IKA is going stronger than ever," he says.

Melanie Kahn asks, "Over the past six months to a year or so how much has the IKA membership grown?"

"Quite a bit, that's all I'll say," says Edwards.

There's no evidence to support Edwards' claim, but there is evidence that other hate groups in Kentucky and across the country are in fact, growing. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center's annual "Year in Hate" report, hate group membership has grown by 50% since 2000, and 5% just since last year.

On April 7, the Department of Homeland security released a report affirming that claim and cited several reasons for the rise of hate groups.

Worth remembering, perhaps, is the fact that Edwards' son leads the skinhead group to which belonged the two skinheads arrested in Tennessee last year for plotting to murder dozens of black people and to assassinate President Obama.

The story illustrates how white supremacists like the Klan can take real body blows and yet keep on ticking. As someone involved in the 30-year struggle to take down the Aryan Nations, it rang a very familiar bell.

I've been reading Leonard Zeskind's magisterial new book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, which will probably become the definitive text for many years to come on the state of white nationalism and white-supremacist ideology in America. (The official book site is here.)

The book is a stunningly complete documentation of how white nationalism, once banished to the fringes, has been working itself back into the mainstream of American discourse (something which is, of course, the major topic of my own book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right). I've known Zeskind for some years -- his research prowess was legendary even in the '90s, and many of us have been waiting years for him to assemble it all in one place.

Bill Berkowitz at Religion Dispatches interviewed Zeskind, who talked about why he wrote it:

It became apparent to me that much of the received wisdom about white supremacists was simply wrong. And I wanted to write a book that did not just say what I thought was correct, but I wanted to show it through specific characters, scenes of action and analysis. These white-ists are not just a bunch of uneducated bumpkins down on their economic luck. Instead, they are demographically much like the rest of white Americans, working class and middle class with a significant stratum of middle class professionals—professors, lawyers, chiropractors, etc.—as their leaders.

And, these are not a string of disconnected organizations sharing only a common set of hatreds. Rather, this is a single movement, with a common set of leaders and interlocking memberships that hold a complete and sometimes sophisticated ideology. Further, the white nationalist movement today is organized around the notion that the power of whites to control government and social policy has already been overthrown by people of color and Jews, rather unlike the Klan of the 1960s which sought to defend a system of racial apartheid in the South.

And he takes, evidently, a similar view of our prospects down the road:

Although I loathe predicting the future, I will say that in the past, hard economic times have not automatically translated into an expansion for white nationalists. There was a growth surge during the Clinton years, for example, which were generally considered better economic conditions for middle class people. In the past, the politics of race and nation mattered more than economic hard times. White nationalists will support protectionist measures, and they oppose free trade in capital goods because they oppose free trade (or open borders) for labor. Whether or not they gain traction by claiming that the stock market and banks are controlled by Jews depends on whether people of goodwill are able to offer a more compelling vision of change.

With Obama in the White House, I think we can expect more of the same, plus some. Some white nationalists will focus on tending to their current base—which is not inconsiderable. They will continue to push for secessionist-style white enclaves and might engage in militia-style violence. Others will attempt to widen their base, and carve out a larger niche among conservative Republicans. Without an electoral vehicle of their own, they will suffer from the vicissitudes of the Republican leadership. Their natural base, however, will be the five percent of white voters who told pollsters last summer that they would never vote for a black person for president. More than Rush Limbaugh will get ugly.

I talked to Lenny on the phone the other day and he's excited about the book's release; he's been at writing it for decades. We'll be having him over for a visit at Crooks and Liars for a chat soon.

It certainly looks like it couldn't have arrived at a more fortuitous moment.

Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.