Thursday, May 06, 2010

Discourse dies if power triumphs

During the grim years of the early post 9/11 Bush presidency, when asking myself "can it happen here?" in the most frightening Sinclair Lewis sense was almost a staple of daily life, I discovered David Neiwert's blog Orcinus. Here was someone who was asking that question, but he actually knew something about the extreme far right, having written about the "Patriot" (I'm damned if I'll cede that label) movement in the Northwest, as well as the internment of the Japanese on the West Coast during World War II. He taught me most of what I know about the legal issues involved in hate crimes laws in Death on the Fourth of July.

Neiwert has summarized his thinking that came out of that period in The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. Eliminationism leads to "the death of discourse, as well as its dissolution into violence and the use of force." This book describes how many people, especially in rural areas, share some of the grievances and fears that feed far right sentiments -- but these sentiments don't crystalize and become active without a whole network of "transmitters" (hate radio jocks, but also unscrupulous preachers and white supremacists) who create a "transmission belt" that issues in the movement conservatism today embodied among the right fringes of the Tea Baggers.

Over the years I've read a lot of the accomplished decoders of the U.S right: Sara Diamond, Leonard Zeskind, Chip Berlet. Their work is invaluable, but after immersion in it, I often feel that I've been wandering through a strange labyrinth of interconnected but nearly incomprehensible mini-sects that spawn infinite minuscule variations. (The 1970s far left has this feel too.) Reading David Neiwert is not like that. Neiwert manages to make far right "conservative para-fascism" imaginable at the same time that he explains why it feels as if it can't be grasped:

At times it seems, when dealing with the movement, as if we've entered a funhouse mirror maze. Or more to the point, a dark and labyrinthine cavern, twisting through an endless maze whose architecture we can only vaguely discern if we hold up our torches. ...

The mutability of truth is what has made confronting the conservative movement feel so maze-like, because factuality in its hands is like clay; you never know what bizarre argument they're going to come up with next. They even sometimes turn established historical consensus on its head. [He references Michelle Malkin's defense of the Japanese internment and Jonah Goldberg's nonsensical pretense that fascism is leftist.]

...The conservative movement ... is an ever shifting beast. Its drive is power, and in that drive it has gradually adopted the familiar architecture of another power-mad right-wing phenomenon of modern mass politics: fascism.

... This is the real danger of para-fascism: once certain forces are unleashed, they often take on a life of their own and prove impossible to contain. If enough of the natural barriers that keep fascism at bay in a democratic society break down, then the half-formed hologram of fascism takes on substance and becomes the real thing, This is the danger movement conservatism has unleashed on America.

This country is by no means conquered by the right yet, but there's lot of para-fascism all around us. And there are frequent suggestions that segments of the political elite in the Republican party think they can ride this tiger without being consumed by it. Historically, that bet has not gone well for the countries of those who made it.

One of the most valuable sections of this slightly disjointed book is the chapter "Eliminationism in America: A Short History." Anyone teaching the country's history would do well to assign this, perhaps with some balancing material from Mike Lux's The Progressive Revolution: How the best in America came to be. There has been eliminationist horror, but there has also been resistance.

David Neiwert's Orcinus seems to be quiescent these days, but the author's reporting and wisdom is available at Crooks and Liars where he is managing editor. I'm still attending to this writer.

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