Friday, January 25, 2013

Racists and paranoids and Christianists, oh my!

A November 2012 report by Arie Perliger on the violent Radical Right in the US, titled Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right and published under the auspices of the Combating Terrorism Center At West Point (with a stock disclaimer, "The views expressed in this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, Department of Defense or U.S. government") is causing quite a bit of grumping among people who pass for "conservatives," it seems. David Sirota reports on the grumbling in Right-wing terrorism is real Salon 01/22/2013.

I'll say here at the start that I have questions and reservations about an Army institution doing this kind of research on domestic political groups. But that's not the main topic of this post. Military educational institutions are generally recognized for maintaining high academic standards. And this paper certainly doesn't read like some kind of PR publication.

I would also note that the military has reason to know something about the characteristics of violent Radical Right groups, because they can not only cause serious problems if they enlist. The military also doesn't want to be providing weapons and explosives training to people whose aim is to overthrow the Constitutional government.

Perliger's paper provides a history of the violent Radical Right in the US over the last couple of decades. He devotes some time to the academic task of defining his subject, which provides an always useful reminder that there is both continuity and constant change and evolution on the far-right scene. He concentrates in this study on American groups that are violent or heavily oriented toward violence.

He characterizes them into three broad ideological categories: the racist/white supremacy movement (KKK, National Socialism/Nazism, Skinheads); the anti-federalist movement (Patriot Militia groups); and, Christian fundamentalist groups (Christian Identity, anti-abortionist).

I found his discussion of the doctrinal roots of Christian Identity particularly interesting. It apparently was spawned in the same historical moment in which John Nelson Darby's (1800-1882) theories of the end of the world offered a religious justification for British colonial ambitions in the Middle East. The trend that led eventually to today's Christian Identity was a special mixture of white racism, identification with the Jews of the Old Testament and undisguised hatred of the real existing Jews of the present.

The fact that some of these theories are complex don't mean they should be counted as sophisticated if mistaken views of the world. Neurotic symptoms can be complicated and creative, as well. But that doesn't mean they are either healthy or desirable or the product of good reality-testing.

But the religious element appears to be sincere, if sincerely fanatical:

The exploitation of biblical texts to promulgate racial and other ideological notions is a common practice in the ideological construction of the Identity movement. Another example is the Identity movement’s interpretation of God's revelations to Abraham and his sons of the transformation of Israel into a dominant, flourishing and powerful nation as an indication of the destiny of the Aryan people. Two further related trends are worth mentioning. The first is the use of apocryphal historical revisionism to associate each architectural achievement of ancient times to the white race, i.e., Egypt's Middle Kingdom pyramids, Wiltshire’s Neolithic post-and-lintel structure of Stonehenge, or the 17th century Mughal mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. The second is the inclination to associate the non-Aryan seed-line with anti-Christian historical events, in particular the persecution and murder of Jesus. (pp. 35-36)
I was also intrigued to see that Gerald K. Smith, one of the most notable far-right figures of the 1930s, was also a significant figure in the development of Christian Identity thought. Perliger notes that he was one of several leaders who continued the crackpot "British Israelite" theology:

Cameron and Rand's followers after WWII, especially the preachers Gerald K. Smith, Wesley Swift, Richard Butler and William Potter Gale, continued to develop the British-Israelite ideological paradigm in their respective Identity churches and groups (such as Church of Jesus Christ Christian, and The US Christian Posse Association), consistently employing theological analysis to further proselytize extreme anti-Semitism, notions of white supremacy and racial segregation, and to exult in apocalyptic visions, transforming the British Israelites into the current day Identity movement. (p. 33)
He adds this biographical summary:

This new coalition of groups moved further from the British-Israelite ideological tradition with the rise of Gerald K. Smith to a leadership position within the movement. Smith was a Southern political operative who was the main aide to Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long during the Great Depression. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s and quickly became the major organizational force behind the emerging Identity movement via its own organization, The Christian Nationalist Crusade. Smith magnified the importance of anti-Semitic ideas in the movement’s ideology and worked intensively to tighten its ties with the American political far-right by recruiting the movement for campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement and the perceived communist threat. He was also able to mentor and nurture a new cadre of political and religious leaders such as Conrad Gaard, Jonathan Perkins, Bertrand Comparet and Wesley Swift. (p. 74)
He also discusses the phenomena of "lone wolves" and "leaderless resistance." And he makes the important point that mass-casualty incidents should be seen as the tip of an iceberg whose base is made up of a multitude of less deadly incidents.

One of Perliger's more intriguing findings is his analysis of the correlation between political violence and partisan strength nationally:

The number of Democratic senators (α=-.271*)355 and congressmen/women (α=-.411**) is negatively correlated with the number of attacks per year, whereas positive correlation of the latter exists with the number of Republican senators (α=.222*) and representatives (α=.413**).356 An additional multivariate (stepwise) regression analysis reveals that the single most significant factor is the number of Republicans in the House (β=.41**, R2=.17**). [my emphasis]
This is counterintuitive to common theories that associate a rise in far-right violence is a response to Democratic/liberal political hegemony.

Perliger suggests some possible interpretations of this finding that shows "the level of [far-right political] violence is positively correlated with a conservative political environment":

The correlation between increased conservative political power and far right violent activism need not imply causality. It is possible that far-right groups may feel that conservative political authorities are more tolerant of their activities, or believe that their actions have the potential to embolden their representatives to pursue an extreme right agenda. It is equally possible that increased levels of violence might be caused by relative deprivation, which occurs when the high expectations of far-right activists during a conservative legislature are not fulfilled. The deprivation explanation is less likely to occur under Democratic-controlled legislature since the expectations are low.
In the case of the Republican Party since at least the "Gingrich Revolution" House crew of 2005, the kind of rhetoric in which elected officials and respected Republican figures like Rush Limbaugh indulge could certainly contribute to violent extremists deciding they had a relatively permissive environment in which to commit acts of violence.

For instance, Orrin Hatch, who served as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee ... and was one of the most prominent Republicans during Clinton's Presidency, said as far back as 1982 that having guns is "the right most valued by free men." (Quoted in Carl Bogus, The Hidden History of the Second Amendment U.C. Davis Law Review 31/2; Winter 1998; p. 312)

There are weaknesses in Perliger's paper. One the annoyance level, he uses the FOXist partisan grammar of "Democrat" as an adjective, e.g., "Democrat presidents." (p. 90)

In discussing theories of violence, he doesn't always make clear the difference in what is being studied. For instance, he writes:

... as in the case of the study of far-right activism, scholars initially focused on the personal/psychological traits which characterize those who joined militant far right groups. Adorno's "authoritarian personality" is probably the most renowned study in this context and, like the ones that followed it, argued that those who tend to support far-right ideology have unique mental and personal traits. The mixed empirical support for Adorno's approach, and the dramatic rise in the power of the European far-right during the 1980s and 1990s, led to the emergence of a long list of theories and explanations that departed from the individual-psychological approach ...
But the Authoritarian Personality study published in 1950, which was part of a larger Studies in Prejudice project directed by Adorno's Frankfurt School colleague Max Horkheimer and sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), was a study directed toward understanding individual psychological traits that would lead people to sympathize with authoritarian political movements, not specifically toward understanding individuals directly engaging in far-right political violence.

Much of the historical background Perliger provides is based on secondary sources. The original research in the paper comes from the analysis of the database of incidents constructed for the research. I found myself doing a double-take on a couple of the sources used. He cites a 1967 report on the Ku Klux Klan from the House Un-American Activities Committee (p. 47). HUAC is more known for its hackwork than for the care of its investigative studies, though that means that the source should be used with particular care rather than disregarded. He also cites a piece from the Fortean Times as a source (p. 10) on Timothy McVeigh. The Fortean Times, seriously? The Fortean Times is a British magazine that publishes stories of weird phenomena in the credulous tradition of Charles Fort. A "weird news" magazine, in other words, not especially scrupulous about ideals of journalistic professionalism. I wouldn't take as well-established a claim that I could only source to the Fortean Times, entertaining as some of their items might be to read. Does West Point's Combating Terrorism Center really consider the Fortean Times a valid source for information like this?

But Perliger's paper provides us a useful contemporary source on far-right violence in the US.

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