Last Sunday, I reviewed Dave Neiwert’s excellent new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. During the ensuing week, he and I had an email conversation about various aspects of the extreme right wing, which he has studied for years. And today, he will join us in comments to answer questions and to discuss what he has learned about hate rhetoric and the mainstreaming of extremism within the conservative movement.
My questions are in bold, Neiwert’s answers are in lightface. And feel free to ask whatever you like of the author in comments and he’ll respond.
What would a process of ratcheting down eliminationist language and action look like? Has it every been successfully tempered without going through a full round of violence and culminating in (for example) a Nuremberg trial?
Yes, it has: As I mention in the book, the decline of the lynching era is a good example of a deliberate effort to scale back eliminationist violence and rhetoric. What worked there was a combination of external pressure and internal moral suasion. The NAACP rose to prominence by bringing the travesty of lynching to people’s attention and making it a national issue; but what actually worked best at bringing about its decline (at least according to scholars like Philip Dray) was the efforts of regional organizations like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, who had some real success making it socially unacceptable to participate or condone it any longer.
Far more often, though, the arc that you mention occurs, where events reach such a fever pitch that something horrific, and cause for great shame afterward, occurs. In the USA, the internment of the Japanese was just such a case. Americans were profoundly ashamed to see the 442nd veterans return home, being greeted by Harry Truman in D.C. as the most decorated unit in the war, while the camps were still open, I think, and the stories from the camps still circulating. Combined with our horror of the fresh news of the Holocaust, a lot of Americans reeled at the realization that they too had opened concentration camps. This had a lot to do with the relatively quick recission in 1952 of the longstanding prohibition against naturalization by Japanese immigrants.
Do you see any current organization like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, or the NAACP, that seem to having an effect on toning things down? Or thus far, do we seem fated to get to a higher level of violence before the rhetoric is condemned and marginalized, particularly by the mainstream conservatives?
Well, if we’re going to use the lynching analogy here, then we need to think of the national body politic as being like the South. I see a couple of entities that actually are having a real-world effect in toning things down. One is the liberal blogosphere, which is effectively circulating counter-information and blasting a lot of the really egregious rhetoric when it comes up, instead of just letting it float at there, which was so much the case for so long. And the other is really two established organizations: Media Matters and Think Progress, both of which I consider a model organizations for this sort of thing. They’re very, very effective for blunting the effect of toxic rhetoric by turning it against the people who wield it. They do great work, and I wish there were more like them.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which undoubtedly does more to track both the actions and the words of the extremist right than anyone in the country, and the Anti-Defamation League, which also does excellent work in disseminating information effectively. In the lynching analogy, these are the NAACPs, doing the important work of disseminating critical information and playing the role of being the outside critic, the national entity that can bring its weight to bear on local thuggery.
What is your best guess on how the current climate is going to play out?
I’m really, really bad at predicting. So take it with a large grain of salt. But if I were to map it out, well ... Of course, I do predict in the book that we’re going to see an uptick in right-wing violence. Mostly I expect to see more police shootouts, lone-wolf attacks, and probably some attacks on media entities or key liberal figures. Give it a couple of years or so down the road and we might see some more seriously organized violence in the form of McVeigh-style action cells.
How deep and how awful it is will depend on a couple of things – the first contingency being the economy and Obama’s effectiveness in turning it around. Though I have to say that even if he does turn it around, that will just enrage these people all the more. On the other hand, I do think it will have a largely temperature-cooling effect. That’s probably our best hope.
If Obama fails, then all bets are off, and we’re all in the deep kimchee. But I personally doubt that scenario. Now, I could play the middle route and suggest that he won’t be a robust success but he’ll do well enough to hang on, which means the right-wing extremism will keep bubbling upward. But I don’t really think that’s how it will play out. I think he’ll do reasonably well, and the far right will grow more inchoate the more powerless it becomes, which is when they become more of a public threat.
But you know, the more violent the Right becomes, the more marginalized it will become. Eventually conservatism—which I actually consider a vital impulse to the overall health of the body politic—will have to reinvent itself in something that actually is humanist. But it could be a long and ugly downward spiral en route to the bottom.
You’ve written about how important you believe individuals speaking out against hate talk is, and how calling them out, day after day, is part of the mission you felt you personally were compelled to undertake after the Oklahoma City bombing. In your opinion, are such independent truth-telling missions enough, or should some organizations be formed to specifically draw attention to such rhetoric?
Well, the personal interaction is critical. I really do believe that the power of individual, person-to-person persuasion can be a powerful agent for change if it spreads, and in fact is the juice that in the end makes real change take place. But no, it’s not enough by itself. There should be more organizations that draw attention to this rhetoric. I’ve already mentioned the SPLC, Media Matters, and Think Progress as excellent models for this kind of work. There should be more.
An obvious question, but one that needs to be asked whenever speech of any kind is at issue: How does one balance the need for free speech with the deleterious effect and knee-jerk desire to shut eliminationist speech down (especially when it's couched, as it so often is, as "humor")?
That’s the trickiest part, I suppose, except that I tend to be what Michelle Malkin calls a "free speech absolutist" – I don’t believe in shutting any of this down through official means or through the power of government. I also don’t believe in shouting people down or harassing them, since it isn’t just government, but also our fellow citizens, who are capable of depriving us of our rights. I think anyone interested in being part of the solution eschews trying to fight fire with fire, thuggery and intimidation with thuggery and intimidation.
However, that doesn’t mean backing down or letting them take advantage of the specifically nonviolent approach I think progressives should take. This is especially true on a rhetorical level; when they punch, punch back harder. In the rhetorical arena, I think anyone who’s read my blog over the years knows I don’t believe in laying down and taking it.
I mention Bill Clinton’s speech in Minneapolis (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=51270) in the book for a reason. It remains kind of a benchmark for why I do what I do:
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.
You know, after Oklahoma City, I felt a certain burden of guilt, because I was one of a handful of journalists who had done work on the militia movement prior to the bombing – and I had been remarkably unsuccessful in selling the stories as a freelancer, even to the paper where I worked my regular day job. And truth be told, I only took them half-seriously, as almost an amusing novelty. And I don’t think anyone in my position could have seen that photo of the firefighter removing that little girl’s body from the rubble without wishing to God they had done more – that perhaps raising public awareness, perhaps helping defuse some of the paranoia, might have helped prevent this. And so I resolved then to do what I could to keep it from happening again.
So I am, per Clinton’s admonition, using my free-speech rights to speak out against this kind of rhetoric, to point out the irresponsibility of the people using it, and to point out the clear connection between it and the very real acts of violence it inspires.
I’m trying to lead by example. I think that when we get the ball rolling, and get people talking about it, it won’t just be my voice standing up to them, but a whole crowd of them. That’s why I wrote this book.
And from there, you know, all kinds of things can happen. The marketplace can be a powerful thing, especially when people understand that big things are at stake.
So this is why I talk about culpability for people like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly in cases like Richard Poplawski and the Pittsburgh cops, or Bernard Goldberg and Jim David Adkisson – because there obviously is no criminal culpability in these situations, and likely not even any civil or legal culpability of any kind. But because the inspirational connection is clear and unmistakable (Adkisson, you’ll recall, specifically cited Goldberg in the manifesto he left outside the Knoxville church in his car, while Poplawski was posting Beck FEMA camp videos to Stormfront), there certainly is a moral and ethical culpability. And that’s where the social component comes in – and along with it, the marketplace consequences.
I frequently hearken to the case of David Lewis Rice, a mentally ill drifter who horribly murdered a Seattle family of four on Christmas Eve in 1986 because he had been worked into a frenzy about them by a local group of ultra-Birchers who told Rice that his future victims were the state’s chief Communists – a complete fabrication based on 30-year-old zombie lies from the McCarthy era. The characters who whipped him up were thenceforth lower than the worst social lepers in Seattle and were shunned socially thereafter except by their close circle of fellow hatemongers.
The same principle is at work here: I have no compunction about exposing these conservatives as the irresponsible fearmongers they are, and shaming them for the ethical and moral dimensions of their behavior. They like to whine that this is an effort to "silence them," but it’s not. It’s shaming them.
And after shaming comes shunning. That’s where I think Spocko’s model of raising awareness among some of these transmitters’ advertisers about just what their dollars are supporting, and what many of their would-be customers are associating them with, can be so effective. I think the more we organize to let our chorus of disapproval be heard on a commercial level, the more change we’ll see.
So there’s no coercive aspect to how we respond. Basically, people make commercial decisions based on their moral and ethical standards all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that these media figures are behaving so irresponsibly as to be harmful to the rest of us. It’s all free speech, free association. It’s just time that we used ours, too.
When looking at leaders in the movement, particularly the transmitters, does it seem the leaders actually believe this stuff? Or do any of them appear to be spouting the hate rhetoric to accrue a paranoid and susceptible power base?
I wish I knew the answer to that. You can’t look at a Rush Limbaugh and not size him up as one of the most cynical human beings on the planet. OTOH, there’s Glenn Beck, who I’m beginning to suspect really is a True Believer, but emotionally unstable and doomed to a spectacular explosion when his ratings do their inevitable decline.
I suspect it’s actually a combination of both: Their deep belief in the cause leads them to excuse, justify, and rationalize any kind of manipulative or cynical behavior, because the end justifies the means.
It's interesting that one of the ways to make the Japanese "other" during World War II and earlier was NOT to say they were intellectually inferior or lazy. It was to dehumanize the by talking about their efficiency like they were essentially robotic and had no moral sense. Do you know why, in particular, this group was treated this way when other immigrant groups in America were not? Mind you, this was years before Japan became an economic force that challenged the U.S. and before the best and brightest Japanese and Japanese Americans were competing for slots in top American colleges, so I find it curious.
A number of reasons. In some regards you can go back to the roots of the eliminationist impulse, that is, the European conception of the world, which saw everything outside of "civilization" as "wilderness" or "jungle," and the inhabitants of those regions appropriately savage barbarians wholly given over to the wantonness of nature. The exception was always the Far Orient, which Europeans saw as a civilization, but an exotic and idolatrous civilization, morally and spiritually inferior.
This conception of "Orientals" as intellectually competitive but morally inferior was always part of the cultural perceptions of Asians. Still, it was quite a shock in 1906 when the Japanese navy defeated the Russians, because this was the first great refutation of the basic doctrines of white supremacy. The narrative, however, simply adapted itself by acknowledging Asians – and the Japanese in particular – as intellectual and military equals, but maintaining their moral and ethical inferiority. You can find this, for example, in such classic eugenicist tomes as The Passing of the Great Race as well as Yellow Peril texts like The Valor of Ignorance.
So today the running stereotype of Asians is that they’re really good at math but socially and otherwise deficient – which really is just a reiteration of self-serving racial fables that have been told for generations.
You discuss in your book how rural areas are experiencing the most immigrant population growth; in many cases, without the immigrants, population would have declined in these regions.. And these areas are experiencing an increase in hate crimes against these groups. A couple of questions: 1. Are the immigrants cited in that study undocumented or here with their papers, do you know? 2. And if they're undocumented, wouldn't it really be in those areas best interest, electorally, to get these people legalized as residents and have their citizenship count toward the census? In some ways, it seems whole regions are cheating themselves out of tqualifying not just for proper and balanced electoral representation, but for federal funding that ends up being based on citizen population count.
- I went back and checked, and the study I cited (http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/Feb03/Findings/HispanicsFind.htm) uses Census Bureau data, so the numbers apparently reflect Census standards – which are something of a mix in terms of accuracy.
- This question presumes that logic and reason are part of this debate – obviously you’re right that it would be in their best interests to help these immigrants on the path to citizenship. Hell, it would be in these people’s best interests to support labor unions and progressive policies in general. But they vote and behave according to cultural tides whose pull is often so powerful that reason hasn’t a chance. I think we saw in the last election, however, the way economics can help progressives work upstream; nothing wakes people up like discovering that the wealthy corporate interests they so reflexively defended have screwed them over completely. And I think making sound economic arguments like this in the immigration debate are how we’ll finally make progress in that arena.
Could you define for readers the distinction you make between "proto-fascism" and "para-fascism?"
It’s kind of a subtle teleological difference, and frankly I was worried that I hadn’t made the distinction clear enough, so here goes:
Proto-fascism is the full constellation of fascist traits arranged in nascent and semi-nascent forms. It’s essentially fascism waiting to mature. Basic examples: The Ku Klux Klan, the Patriot movement.
Para-fascism is something like quasi-fascism: An assemblage of some of the traits that make up the fascist constellation, but not all of them. Thus movement conservatism is para-fascist in the sense that it has a number of the fascist traits, but not all of them – particularly not essential traits like the open embrace of an ethic of violence.
In the comments of last Sunday’s review, there was an objection to using the word, "fascism," because it’s so loaded. Do you stand by that, and would you like to explain your reasoning further?
A reasonable objection, though I think if anyone reads the text they’ll see that if anyone’s specially positioned to talk about fascism, not as an abstract notion but a real-world phenomenon, it’s probably yours truly. Still, that said, I understand the objection: the word is so toxic that it immediately poisons partisan discourse.
However, I’m really neither an ideologue trying to persuade people to adopt an ideology, nor am I a strategic thinker who appreciates the finer points of winning rhetorical battles. I’m really just a journalist who is making fairly straightforward observations based on my experiences and my research. I’ve always had the unfortunate tendency to let the cards fall where they may, which can be hell on one’s career and alliances.
I also have to point out that, these days, it isn’t liberals who are throwing the word about with abandon. If it’s going to be used to describe Barack Obama, then I think we could all use a serious talk about just what the hell the word actually means.
There was a portion of your book I quoted in last week’s review that I would like to revisit. Here’s the section in question:
For all its logic and love of science, a consistent flaw weighs down modern liberalism: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority. (Not, of course, that conservatives are any better in this regard; factoring in the religious Right and the "moral values" vote, they are objectively worse.) This tendency becomes especially noticeable in urban liberal societies, which for all their enlightenment and love of tolerance are maddeningly and disturbingly intolerant of the "ignorance" of their rural counterparts....
If we want to look at all those red counties and come to terms with the reasons the people there think and vote the way they do, it's important to come to terms with our own prejudices, our own willingness to treat our fellow Americans--the ones who are not like us--with contempt and disrespect....
In the end, we cannot prevent fascism from happening here by pretending it is something it is not; it must be confronted directly and straightforwardly, or it will not be confronted at all. Yet, at the same time, those who are the targets of its eliminationist bile must resist the temptation to wield this recognition like a cudgel. We cannot dehumanize and demonize those who have fallen under its sway. And we cannot stop the forces of hate by indulging it ourselves.
Quite a few readers of the review took exception to the formulation that liberals need to take responsibility for part of the problem. What is your response to that objection?
I’m glad it got brought up, because I felt wasn’t able to explain myself well enough within the framework of the book, which by necessity was whittled down to something of a bare-bones argument (I originally handed them a manuscript about a third again as long as the finished product). I can see in the comments that there was a lot of misapprehension about what I was saying. Though in a lot of cases I can see people are just going to disagree, which is fine too.
First, I need to point out my parenthetical remark immediately following the controversial sentence:
(Not, of course, that conservatives are any better in this regard; factoring in the religious Right and the "moral values" vote, they are objectively worse.)
So I think it’s probably safe to say this is a universal human flaw, something closely akin to hubris, because that’s where it inevitably leads.
And as much as I am proud to call myself a progressive or a liberal these days, I’m also a an honest student of history who’s perfectly aware that, for all their general rightness, we have been wrong in the past too. Prohibition – a horrendous mistake – was a progressive enterprise. The role of progressives in fostering and promoting eugenics will forever be a black mark on their record. Likewise the shameful record of racism of the early progressives and labor-union movements.
The point is not to wallow in guilt about these mistakes, but to acknowledge that we’re capable of making them too. And when we operate from that knowledge, we’ll be more honest, more capable of dealing with realities on the ground, and have a greater chance of actual success.
Now, in the pages just preceding this passage, I spent some time talking about Robert Jay Lifton’s Superpower Syndrome and some of its keener insights. Lifton, one of the most brilliant minds in the psychiatric field, essentially diagnosed the nation after 9/11 and urged that it give up its mad ambitions for global hegemony as the world’s sole remaining superpower, release its hold on trying to control the world and opt instead for a leadership-in-cooperation role.
It’s in the same spirit, on a more human political scale, that I talk about repudiating the desire to be the hero. When we give up our assumptions about our moral superiority, it lets us see people we disagree with – people on the other side – in a different light a lot of the time. (Not always, of course; some people are just assholes.)
But a lot of why I think anti-liberal memes have so much success out in rural areas is that we’ve actually withdrawn from any dealings with rural dwellers, they have no idea what we’re really like, what our actual reasons are for taking the positions we take. It’s easy to begin believing urbanites are amoral libertines if their only exposure to them is through right-wing yammerers’ caricatures.
We are all caught up in dynamic that’s like a two-headed dragon chasing its own tail, and it’s a destructive one. We can blame the Right for fueling it and feeding and living off it, but we also have to recognize we have a role in fueling it too. And vicious dynamics like these cannot be broken by one side or the other gaining ultimate dominance, because human nature is what it is, and that simply won’t happen. Neither side is going away. The only way to break the dynamic is to step outside of it altogether.
As I say, I have this unfortunate tendency to let the cards fall where they may and say what I think. Liberal hubris will ensure the cycle continues. Liberals won’t want to hear that, but as always, I consider it my duty to write what I honestly observe. People don’t have to like it – I don’t particularly like it myself – but it is what it is.
Click for further information on Neiwert's The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.