Saturday, March 20, 2010

Extremism and the Politics of Legitimacy

I have been tromping through the online world of the Tea Party, Oath Keepers, and Southern Poverty Law Center looking through the discussions of conspiracy theories, radicalism, and the contemporary conservative grassroots mobilization. The movement, media, and analysts are caught in the conundrum of what to do about conspiracy theories and theorists who argue that the U.S. is about to be invaded, that citizens are going to be sent to reeducation camps or interned in FEMA concentration camps, and/or that a New World Order is about to be created in the form of a united, international government. On their face, the groups built on these beliefs organize themselves around traditional frames of democratic governance and the Lockean right to rebellion in order to legitimize their political position. I will go through the Oath Keepers "10 Orders We Will Not Obey to demonstrate the moral quandary within the discussion and ultimately why I do believe these people are dangerous.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its Hatewatch blog with its attendant comments have become a good case study in the justification and defense of the conspiracy mindset. The SPLC has labeled such groups, particularly the Oath Keepers, various militias, Patriot organizations, and the John Birch Society as radical extremest groups because of their anti-government platform and threats of radical action. Their blog has attracted a wide-range of apologists for the groups which make for educational (if inflammatory from both sides) reading. The most common defenses are "we're not hate groups" and "we are defending the constitution - there's nothing wrong with saying we will not obey unlawful orders." While the former is an instance of miscommunication (the SPLC distinguishes Hate groups from Anti-government extremism), the latter is the perfect example of the moral ambiguity of these groups.

At face, no one would have a problem taking the oath of the Oath Keepers to not intern American citizens as Unlawful Enemy Combatants. In fact, I might suggest it for many police forces when it comes to profiling and stop and search routines. The problem is that the ideology and beliefs about the world which justify the oath, also justify violence against the government and collateral citizenry. The oath is not bad and does not define the Oath Keepers as extreme. In the same way, patrolling the border and preventing illegal entry by the Minutemen is neither illegal nor, by definition, dangerous. It's the understanding that immigrants are criminally violent, a fear of the "browning" of the population, and sense of personal, cultural superiority.

Take the Vdare blog for example. It's a policy and research-oriented forum on immigration issues written by the authors of "The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America" and "Alien Nation." The name is an homage to Virginia Dare and a celebration of "the mettle of those settlers." This pride in national history is at once virtuously patriotic and immorally ignorant in its unacknowledged celebration of colonization and "whitening"/brown eradication. The same dangerous double speak is found in the Oath Keepers whose Orders We Will Not Follow demonstrate their danger.

Let's use easy examples.

Order #7: "We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext." The insinuation is obvious. The group is motivated by the belief that Americans are under threat of being placed in detention camps (maybe they mean prison).

Order #8: "We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to 'keep the peace' or to 'maintain control' during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war." Again, the insinuation is obvious.

While it is a bit comforting to know that if the government decided to put me in a detention camp, there would be military and police officers who've got my back; I'm not comfortable with members of the police and military believing that the country is about to be besieged by foreign invaders and citizens rounded up in concentration camps. The reason is that it means that armed representatives of the law believe themselves to be under imminent threat. Not only does it justify these oaths, but it also motivates and legitimizes proactive violence to prevent such from occurring. The ideology behind these overtly legitimate stances and commitments is one based on a dangerous conspiracy of imminent threat and justified revolution. Such a dual legitimacy is a constant in the politics of hate and extremism as well as other forms of unacceptable platforms.

Rory McVeigh has finally come out with his book on the KKK in the early twentieth century. The biggest takeaway for this post can be garnered from the earlier article with his colleagues on the same topic "Corn, Klansmen, and Coolidge." During the 1920s and 30s, the Klan was actually much more of a political party than a civic group, paramilitary, or fly-by-night band of marauders. They developed an entire platform similar to the libertarian platform today with an additional emphasis on support for farmers, anti-immigration, and racial segregation. Racial superiority as an ideology was actually less prominent than their broader political agenda.

The lesson I want to draw out is that extremism and hate are always wrapped up in an account of how they tie into common, fundamental values of the American constitution and way of life (obviously in the American case). This is necessary for political power, but we must not confuse these claims for the fundamental raison d'etre ("reason for being") of the organization. For the Klan, it was white supremacy. For the Oath Keepers, it is defense against an impending totalitarianism. For intelligent design groups, it is the replacement of scientific knowledge and secularism with a Bible-centered education and society.

P.S. As for the spillover effects of suffering these conspiracy theories in the name of free speech, I must also acknowledge a correction I need to make to a previous post. I predicted that the movement would spawn violence next year. Joe Stack proved me wrong. (Despite the debate over his political leanings, his anti-government diatribe, principled Birch-style tax evasion, and the support he has received in right wing circles firmly sets him within the current anti-government extremist culture.) Secondly, as the SPLC has consistently shown, there have been many acts of violence and foiled plots well before I wrote the post. The real change I expect over the course of this year and next is an increase in the coverage of these plots, scale of violence, and increasingly formal ties to existing extremist groups. They do not have to foster their own violence. Simply fanning a conspiracy-driven climate of the fear of government tyranny is good enough to push sympathizers to violence.