The following are a few thoughts, more or less in order but of fairly rough outline, on the looming specter of ‘right-wing terror.’ Comments or corrections welcome.
I am struck by how similar the current establishment left campaign to vilify the entire conservative movement and everyone else on the right and the (on-going) efforts by the right to do the same sort of thing to the Muslim world. Both are preposterous; both are rooted in a desire to see one’s political enemies as one massive, undifferentiated (and hence quite faceless) horde that can then be easily attacked through the worst examples inhering in said horde. Thus, in the current campaign of anti-rightist hysteria (for examples, just take a look at Krugman and Rich in that bastion of rational peace-mongering, cough, the NYT) everyone on the right is placed in the same box of ‘right-wing’: paleoconservatives to Tea Party types to white nationalists to neo-Nazis to pro-life activists. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to notice the vast discrepancies that lie between these different groups, including the fact some of them have nothing more in common than some common enemies and, usually, shared melanin content. A Tea-Party neoconservative sort and a neo-Nazi anti-Semite- come on. Glenn Beck and Stormfront are not the same thing, even if they happen to converge on some points; only through the simplistic device of ‘left and right’ can they be at all grouped together. The same logic would equivocate Hillary Clinton and Murray Bookchin (assuming one could be a convincing case for a Clinton being at all on the left; just barely maybe…), and would be equally flawed. And the same logic, going back to my comparison, has been used to mass all Muslims together as being either outright or secretly violent and just waiting to go crazy, for either inexplicable (‘they hate our freedom’) reasons, or because of religiously inherent animosity towards all non-Muslims and especially America. Salafists become al-Qaeda become Sufis. A similar sort of reckless essentialism and equivocation is going on, if not as deeply or widely- for now- against right-wing and conservative Americans, and with it calls, some explicit and some implicit, for the State to start busting heads.
Particularly gregarious are the attempts, some more obvious than others, to equivocate genuine hard-rightists (in the classic, European sense of the term) of the neo-Nazi variety with the average conservative, or, for slightly more comparative purposes, particularly intense conservatives. Such an attempt is, of course, an attempt to smear the broader right with the charge of antisemitism, which, at first glance, seems a promising venture. After all, much of today’s conservative movement has at least ancestral roots in the old Southern segregationist movement (though this does not necessarily mean much of anything, but that’s another topic), which wasn’t exactly known for being pro-semetic, to say the least. But the present is rather different: the modern South is, if anything, a rabidly prosemitic place. And I don’t just mean pro-Israel- sure, no doubt one of the significant reasons for Southern evangelical (and I suppose evangelicals elsewhere in the US, but my lived knowledge base of American Christianity is mostly limited to the South) support of Israel and hence prosemitism developed out of a very particular interpretation of dispensationalist theology that places a high value on Israel and the Jewish people. But it would be false and unfair to suggest that Southern evangelicals only support Israel and ‘like’ Jews as part of an apocalyptic scheme to bring Jesus back. Growing up evangelical in the South, I was taught- both explicitly and implicitly- to value not just Israel but Jewish people and Judaism in general, even as the distinction was maintained between the two. Say what you will of groups like Jews for Jesus, but having Jewish people in rural Southern churches acting out Jewish ritual- that’s pretty significant. And it’s pervasive- I’ve encountered a fair amount of anti-African American sentiment in the South, and some anti-Latino sentiment, but I can recall having witnessed only a couple instances of antisemitism. Maybe some of my readers have encountered more, maybe it’s lurking out there somewhere- if so, probably outside the orbit of Southern evangelicalism. But therein lies part of my point- right-wing conservative evangelicals are, if anything, rabidly prosemitic; advocating limits on Jewish settlement expansion borders on the blasphemous. Yet we’re supposed to imagine them and neo-Nazis on the same scale, as somehow being part of the same movement?
Of course, there are the genuine out-and-out white nationalists and the members of the paleoconservative right who tend in that direction- and some of these people probably are genuinely racist and possibly even antisemitic. But again, lumping them together, first of all part of some cognent unified movement of- what, paleoconservatives?- is artificial and inaccurate, and become even more gregarious when trying to bring the ‘mainstream’ conservative movement into it. Trust me, the average right-winger in America has probably never heard of V-DARE and probably hates Patrick Buchanan almost as much as he hates Barack Obama. But again, we’re expected to group them altogether and be sufficiently afraid of all of them.
Ditto on the pro-life movement: we’re supposed to imagine pro-lifers all being rabidly waiting to blow up or shoot (God knows those people are armed to the teeth, not like civilized White people) saintly abortionists like the Martyr Till. It’s not a huge leap, of course, to move from such hysterical diatribe to demanding the prosecution of all ‘radical’ pro-life activists, with the parameters of ‘radical’ being stretched further and further. First rosaries, then firebombs, right?
In the end much of comes down to a simple fear of especially, though not exclusively, a certain sort of American, usually rural or perhaps suburban (but imagined no doubt as rural), evangelical, possibly Pentecostal (the scariest sort), likely Southern and white (but not White, naturally), uneducated (or at least in the right way), and heavily armed. God, the guns- nothing is as frightening as their guns. Crackers with guns. They have ideology- ideologies if you’re being slightly fairer and not entirely collapsing them into one mass- which makes them even more frightening; they have grievances, they listen to idiots on the radio, like the wrong music, and read the Bible far too much and take it far too seriously.
Maybe I exagerate a little, but not too much, I think. And let me add the caveat- certainly, I can’t stand much of what goes on and is accepted and advocated in various corners of the right. I find the near and outright xenophobia and racism of the paleoconservative right disgusting and destructive, along with similar manifestations elsewhere in the more mainstream right; the warmongering of the neoconservative right is equally repulsive. Certainly, elements all along the right have engaged in ugly tactics and advocated awful things; they have also and continue to advocate many good things, whether on behalf of the unborn or against aggresive foreign policy or in favour of free markets (though one rarely finds all three of these in one place on the right…). There is nothing dangerous or particularly wrong about pointing out the sins of the right. But the tone and intentions that seem to lie behind the ongoing campaign against an undifferentiated right-wing in general- from Stormfront to Bill O’Reilly- is deeply troubling and dangerous. Letterman’s recent crass jokes at Sarah Palin’s expense- a politician, it should be obvious, I have some serious issues with myself- are a snapshot of the prevailing attitude in America’s elite and in much of the centre-left. There is a hatred for conseratives, in particular, because they are the wrong sort of people. They vote the wrong way, they have outdated notions, they can’t accept change. They’re like natives in a colonial state, they’re like the image of Muslims that right-wingers had crafted as part of the ‘war on terror’: ignorant, different, dangerous, a horde. Sure, maybe they feel threatened by Federal policies, by changing culture- that’s because they’re natives, uneducated, different, violent.
And like natives in any good colonial state, they must be controlled before they lash out. For their own good, of course. We’ll see how far the current hysteria carries- it may well die down and things chug along with mutual hatred and miscomprehension, which would be better than a ramped-up police state and random acts of terrorism. For if you treat people like colonials they’re likely to respond; and one should not forget that Ghandi was something of an exception in anti-colonial struggle. The possibility for xenophobia and outright racism certainly exists all along the right; persecuting and vilifying people isn’t going to help things. The average right-wing American is not violent, even if some folks get hot on internet forums; indeed, not unlike with the Muslim world, if even a small percentage of right-wingers were willing to carry out mass violence, we’d be in trouble.
In closing, one of the things that has for some time struck me as both ironic and tragic is the way in which both Islamic societies and Southern white culture are so often construed in similar ways, even as Southern whites enlist and are enlisted into campaigns against Muslim peoples (I doubt whether most Muslims have any awarness of the South or Southern whites as distinct but if they did no doubt perceptions would be equally bad). The Southern white and the traditional Muslim are both cast as backwards, inherently violent, religion-bound, incapable of dealing with change or ‘progress,’ wedded to their traditions, and in need of paternalistic (or perhaps not so paternalistic) care. In both cases, one can easily enough find examples to flesh out the stereotype, and thus enforce the faceless image of a foreign, deadly threat. And sure, if one looks one can find unsavory views and attitudes in both the average Southern white and the average traditional Muslim (along with views and attitudes you’re not taught to expect in either); but this does not prove in either case that average Bubba or Ahmed is out to wreck and kill, and it certainly does not justify dehumanizing reduction to a faceless other.
The great Bill Kauffman has often articulated a vision of society in which the ‘wrong sort of white people,’ like our much-maligned crackers with guns, can join forces or at least stop sniping at other ‘wrong sorts of people,’ whether commune hippies growing their own food or Latinos in the rural barrios of the South. These various groups- for so long played off and playing themselves off against each other- could then work for their genuine interests, united in so many things that they share in common. It’s a beautiful, humanistic vision, and Mr Kauffman remains fairly optimistic about it. Mass lumping of conservative Americans, of all stripes, into the category of the violent irrational Other does not move us any closer to a humane goal like Kauffman’s; it only serves to perpetuate the divisions and excaberate the already existing hatred and mistrust. Add in the sorts of police-state measures some people are advocating and it will only grow far worse. If we try, on the other hand- all of us, whether conservative or socialist or libertarian- to see our neighbors as genuine human beings who carry concerns and harbour fears like the rest of us, we move much closer to a more humane and livable future. God knows it can be hard- God knows I’ve felt some pretty nasty sentiments towards people in my native South, I’ve gotten frustrated and angry, I’ve failed miserably at loving my closest neighbors, much less my more distant ones. I’ve shot back with all but bullets, and being a contrarian libertarian sort, I usually end up shooting in all directions… But it remains that, as cliche as it sounds, fighting fire with fire, xenophobia with xenophobia, is only a recipe for more pain, for more violence, from all sides.
God have mercy on us and teach us to love our neighbors, or at least to stop shooting, with bullets or otherwise, at them.