Monday, June 15, 2009

Extreme Prejudice

The killing of a doctor who performed abortions and the near-massacre at a Holocaust museum that resulted in the death a heroic guard.

These two events are married by their proximity to one another in the current news cycle. The two killers, Scott Roeder and James Von Braunn, as far as we know, never met each other, knew nothing of each other’s “work,” and probably had quite different political philosophies. Roeder had some ties several anti-government groups and Von Braunn is an unaffiliated white supremacist. Perhaps “fellow-travelers,” but essentially operating on their own, unaware of each other’s activities. However, both have been twined in the press as representatives of an ad-hoc club known as “the extreme right wing.” The use of “extreme” to modify the compound noun “right wing” (or, re-phrased to make extreme a noun, as in “right wing extremist.”) performs two disservices. First, it tends to underscore the hesitation we feel in our culture to label our terrorists as terrorists. Terrorism comes from the outside, and preferably, in the visage a dark-skinned Muslim. Secondly, it creates an impression in the mind that these two men acted out of a political belief rather than out of a a narcissistic psychopathic drive for attention. Roeder did not love fetuses. He had not special hatred for abortion, other than it was his cause. He loved seeing himself a kind of crusading knight. Von Braunn did not want to really see the Fourth Reich take over the United States, he wanted to play out his adolescent fantasies of being an Aryan warrior. A less erudite blog might simply render the verdict thus: they are nuts. (I say this in the present tense because as of this writing, Von Braunn remains alive in critical condition.)

The politicizing of the players and their motives also does a third thing which is undesirable. It shackles the real right wing of American political discourse to acts of supreme criminality. By using the term “right wing extremism” we are essentially saying “look, visualize a continuum. Mark a place off in the middle with an ‘X’ and call it ‘neutral’ or independent. Left or right of that mark and you can start plugging names in. On the left side, the range is Bill Clinton to William Ayers with maybe Michael Moore, the Katrina Vandenheuval, Rachel Maddows, Dennis Kucinich, Abby Hoffman, and Butterfly Hill sprinkled in there for good measure. On the right, let the range run from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, and Rush Limbaugh, all the way to Tim McVeigh, Roeder, and Von Braunn.” Bad company, indeed. It is so bad that conservative commentators are trying to do everything in their power to make these associations go away. One way, and perhaps the most absurd and frankly, juvenile tactic, was used recently by Limbaugh on his radio show: Von Braunn is a left wing extremist. The logic being that because Von Braunn also hated the Republican establishment, he must be more in line with the Weather Underground. I suppose the same could be said about the KKK, after all, the head of the RNC is an African-American, and Clarence Thomas was appointed by a… gasp!... Republican!

Of course, the mainstream left experienced an infinitely milder version of this last year during the Reverend Wright and William Ayers flaps. Left of centrists like Chris Matthews grilled Ayers on his show before ultimately acknowledging Ayers was now a stand-up guy. And Keith Olbermanm just this past week made Wright his “Worst Person in the World” for his remarks about Jew and their relationship to the Obama administration. (You know that evergreen, that banal chestnut that gets trotted out when civil rhetoric fails: Jews control everything!) No one wants crazy on their team.

This is not to say that the left doesn’t actually have its share of whack-jobs who should be given a heavy dose of Ambien and a padded cell on the moon. There is a tendency in mainstream culture to associate the left with peace, love, flowers, and sit-ins. (Forgetting, of course, that America’s participation in both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War was initiated by Democratic presidents.) But crazy is essentially a non-partisan phenomenon. I recall several years ago being in a conference room with several dozen college English instructors. It was just after the 2004 election and we were all resplendent in our hair-shirts, moaning about Ohio, and what four more years of Bush was going to do to us. Out of the blue, a fellow teacher (of whom I will only describe as being of the age to have remembered being at Woodstock and /or Spahn Ranch) announced that she hoped “someone would just take the karma on themselves and take out Bush.” Those who witnessed this utterance cleared their collective throats and change the topic to composition pedagogy.

Right and left are simply superficial terms used to describe a variety of political opinions. Due to our binary, winner-take-all electoral system, these varieties have been corralled into simplified and frankly insulting polarities. What this has done over time is to make our political discourse base, our public policy crass, and our cultural ethos more like sitcom than an epic. (One need only to watch Ken Burns’ masterpiece, The Civil War to be reminded which genre is the truer mode of our story.) Where does one go if they are pro-choice, anti-tax, but totally unmoved by the flag-burning debate? The culture tells you that you do not count. You must align yourself with red or blue. (The third party route being a complete non-starter.) And because those who stray even an inch from the party line are banished to the fringes of the continuum (or summarily excommunicated from the party altogether, as did Limbaugh to Colin Powell, a man who served two Republican presidents), it should come as no surprise that everything in our culture, from a comedian’s routine to a murder’s rampage can be lashed to the same gamut and be made a talking point.

One of the advantages of this scheme is that it makes it much easier to generate unflattering and politically expedient associations, an “if X, then Y” scenario. This permits left Democrats the latitude to declare any Republican a fascist and allows the Republicans to slander every Obama proposal as “socialist,” even when it originates with the Bush White House.

One may quibble that that what used to be referred to as “far right” has inched closer to the mainstream of Republicanism. (Test the waters… Michael Savage and Ann Coulter are where on the continuum? And who are the folks doing their kind of work on the left? I brainstormed this for awhile. The closest association I can make would be maybe Al Franken and maybe Janeane Garofalo. But, really, has anyone on the left said anything quite as proportionately asinine Ann Coulter when she called John Edwards a faggot or when she called for the forced conversation of all Muslims in America?)

Moderation has not been the watchword of Republicans. They actually haven’t seemed all that conservative, if the word still means anything. But it is unfair and incorrect to tar anyone in the Republican mainstream as an extremist. Of course we could always dredge up the likes of David Duke, but it is worthwhile noting that he has run under both political banners. However, the “according to Hoyle” Republicans that we can name - Limbaugh, Palin, Cheney, McCain, Jindal, Steele – may not always be pleasant or tolerant or representative of the best American ideals, but they are not extremists. I believe, therefore, that is wrong to fly in people like McVeigh, Von Braunn, and Roeder as representatives of extreme Republican philosophy, just as it is wrong to fly in Charles Manson as a representative of the extreme left. These individuals need to be viewed on their own “merits” and considered on an entirely different spectrum of ideas ranging perhaps from the homicidally deranged to the psychopathically deluded. But by all means, keep them out of the political sphere!

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