Byron York has this piece about the counterproductive urge on the left to characterize the Tea Parties as extreme, racist, and violent. After turning a few rocks over he seems to find the motherlode under the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 1989, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of skinheads, saying, “Not since the height of Klan activity during the civil rights era has there been a white supremacist group so obsessed with violence. …”
In 1992, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of other white supremacist groups, which it claimed had grown by 27 percent from the year before.
In 1995, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of right-wing militias.
In 1998, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of Internet-based hate groups, which according to one press account had “created the biggest surge in hate in America in years.”
In 1999, the SPLC warned that the growing threat of Web-based hate groups was growing even more, with a 60 percent increase from the year before.
In 2002, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of post-Sept. 11 hate groups, which it said had grown 12 percent between 2000 and 2001.
In 2004, the SPLC warned (again) of the growing threat of skinhead groups, whose numbers it said had doubled in the previous year.
In 2008, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of hate groups overall, whose number it said increased 48 percent since 2000.
And in 2010, just a few weeks ago, the SPLC warned of the growing threat of “patriot” groups, which it said increased by 244 percent in 2009.
Man, that’s what I call growth. With numbers like that, 387% of every American man, woman, and child, white, black, yellow, red, and other, gay, and straight are violent white supremacists.
With them as a “credible source”, it’s no wonder the left is wetting their pants at all the white supremacists hiding in the McDonald’s bathroom, and neighbor’s dog house.
But it’s not just one org pumping out implausible statistics; it’s a complete self-reinforcing system of paranoia. Which brings me back to last summer, after the left-wing mensa kook shot the guard at the Holocaust museum. At the time, Jesse Walker wrote a piece at Reason Magazine on the reaction to that, long before the libel against the Tea Parties got its socks on:
Who killed Stephen Tyrone Johns, the guard gunned down at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., last week? If you only read the news pages, the culprit should be clear: the 88-year-old Nazi James W. von Brunn. But in the opinion section, the answer looks cloudier. For some pundits, blame rests not just with the killer but with a host of angry voices on the radio, the television, and the Internet.
I think you all remember. According to the media, the guy was not only a typical white supremacist, but he was the tip of an iceberg. Remember?
Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News and World Report indicts the “promoters of hate” for the shooting, adding, “If yesterday’s Holocaust Museum slaying of security guard and national hero Stephen Tyrone Johns is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don’t know what is.” In The New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman warns that “right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.” His colleague Frank Rich has written a piece that begins with the museum shooting but rapidly becomes an argument that “homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs.” After the museum murder, Rich writes, Glenn Beck “rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a ‘lone gunman nutjob.’ Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that ‘the pot in America is boiling,’ as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on.”
Beck. Boiling pot. Heh.
Less than a month before the museum murder, an assassin shot the Kansas abortionist George Tiller, prompting a similar set of complaints. For the record, I don’t think Tiller’s critics in the media and the pro-life movement should be blamed for that crime. Speakers are not morally responsible for all the ways their words can be received. But in that case, at least, there was a coherent connection between the rhetoric and the killer’s target. Say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Michael Savage, but I don’t remember any of them railing against the Holocaust museum. If Beck, to borrow Rich’s mixed metaphor, is cheering on a kettle, it isn’t the kettle that produced von Brunn.
Which brings us to the nub:
We’ve heard a lot of warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president. We’ve heard much less about the paranoia of the centrists; indeed, the very idea that the sober center could be paranoid sounds bizarre. But when mainstream columnists treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a “pattern” of “rising right-wing violence,” their thesis bears more than a little resemblance to the conspiracy theories of the fringe figures they oppose. In both cases, the stories being told reflect the anxieties of the people discerning the patterns much more than any order actually emerging in the outside world.
This is an interesting and highly counterintuitive thesis. He’s suggesting that the “center” has become so paranoid, that they’ve manufactured a threat, and the threat then becomes the driving force behind a witchhunt.
This certainly isn’t without precedent. The Salem witchhunters weren’t radicals; they were the pillars of their community. But hunt witches, unfairly and irrationally, they most certainly did.
I’d reframe this a little. I’m not so convinced that there is a such thing as a “center”, as Walker claims; I think what he’s referring to is the elite. The “center” if you will, of the political/media establishment. But the point remains. The “respectable” establismentarian position can take on a tinge of paranoia.
The classic account of American conspiratology is Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It’s a flawed, uneven article, but it includes several perceptive passages. The most astute section might be this:
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.
Hofstadter doesn’t acknowledge it, but the argument could be applied to a lot of his audience as well. His article begins with a reference to “extreme right-wingers,” a lede that reflected the times: As he was writing, America was undergoing a wave of alarm about the radical right. This had been building throughout the Kennedy years and had intensified after the president’s assassination, which many people either blamed directly on the far right or attributed to an atmosphere of fear and division that they traced to the right’s rhetoric. By the time Hofstadter’s article appeared, the projection he described was in full effect not merely on the fringes but in the political center. Just as anti-Communists had mimicked the Communists, anti-anti-Communists were emulating the red-hunters.
History does seem to have a way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?
In 1961, for example, Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers and the liberal attorney Joseph Rauh wrote a 24-page memo urging the attorney general to deploy the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission in “the struggle against the radical right.” By this they meant not just the Birchers and the Christian Crusade but Goldwater and the libertarian Volker Fund.
In Before the Storm, his history of the Goldwater movement, the independent historian Rick Perlstein describes Group Research Incorporated, a UAW-funded operation, as “the mirror image of the political intelligence businesses that monitored left-wingers in the 1950s, identifying fellow-travelling organizations by counting the number of members and officers shared with purported Communist Party fronts. Group Research did the same thing, substituting the John Birch Society for the reds.“
The implications of this for the present are clear: the allegations of radicalism coming from the left and the establishment organs toward the tea parties are a reflection of the left-wing radicalism among those who have actually seized power.
Walker then goes on to make the case that the militias, then and now, are also generally being tarred as far more radical than they really are. The whole thing is worth a read.
Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler complained to New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl in The Right to Bear Arms, Karl’s balanced assessment of the militia phenomenon. “They’re actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others.” It’s true that some racists and anti-Semites popped up in militia circles. Some blacks, Hispanics, and Jews showed up as well. The driving force behind the movement was fear of the government, not fear of foreign races and religions.
The militias may be a little nuts, but so are the people running this country. The difference is the militias aren’t dangerous, because they’re not in power.
And speaking of paranoid nuts, hi there, stalkers! How’s Fearless Leader?