Further Thoughts On The Eliminationists

The moral heart of David Neiwert’s absorbing new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, is Chapter 8, "Eliminationism in America: A Brief History." It is a heartbreaking narrative of virulently hateful rhetoric and bigotry sparking hundreds of years of unspeakably atrocious crimes against Native Americans, against Africans and African Americans, against Chinese Americans, against Japanese Americans, against Jews, Irish, Italians, against anyone who didn’t look like, speak like, act like, or think like those in the dominant white culture. The goal was to extirpate the different by any means necessary, including rape, torture, and murder.

And Dave doesn’t shy from the awful truth: from the standpoint of the bigoted, it’s worked. For example:
...while the South actively oppressed its nonwhite population, Americans in most of the rest of the country chose not to even tolerate their presence and actively engaged in an ongoing campaign of eliminationist violence to drive them out, forcing them to cluster in large urban areas for their own self-protection and survival.
Thus, our many, many lily-white Northern suburbs.

Given the ghastly record of success Americans have had when they’ve indulged their tendencies to expunge the Other, both here and abroad, this modern call to exterminate the brutes, from John Podhoretz, should come as no surprise:
What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?
To counter such hate requires the positing of moral axioms that transcend the narrow space carved out by racial, ethnic, and national identities. In short, an effective response to America’s tropism for exterminative violence requires liberalism. Modern conservative ideologies won’t cut it: They have become saturated with the prejudices of the far-right’s rhetoric, frameworks, and obsessions. The modern day conservative movement privileges - no, fetishizes - eliminationism, whether it takes the form of drowning the baby of government]; Coulter’s proposal to invade the Middle East, kill their leaders, and convert the populace to Christianity; liberal hunting permits, or Glenn Beck’s latest rightwing belches.

Countering modern American fascists and para-fascists is easier said than done. In the last chapter of his book, Neiwert calls for urban liberals to understand better where their rural fellow-citizens are coming from:
For all of its logic and love of science, a consistent flaw weighs down mooern liberalism: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority. (Not, of course, that conservatives ate any better in this regard; factoring in the religious Right and the "moral values" vote, they are objectively worse.) This tendency becomes especially noticeable in urban liberal societies, which for all their enlightenment are maddeningly and disturbingly intolerant of the "ignorance” of their rural counterparts. This is not an omnipresent attitude but it is pervasive enough that rural dwellers’ perceptions of it are certainly not without basis. There's a similar stigma attached to religious believers as well, especially among the more secular liberals, and that, in turn, has given birth to a predictable counterreaction that is only partially informed by misunderstanding.
Here, Dave and I slightly disagree. Or rather, as an urban liberal who, unlike Neiwert, grew up in essentially an urban liberal milieu, the situation looks to me to be far more complex.

“Religious believers” make up the vast majority of urban liberals, for example. We go to every denomination of church, put our children through the training for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, volunteer in religiously-run charity groups, celebrate the major holidays, keep kosher, wear ash crosses on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and so on. There are very, very few genuinely “secular liberals” anywhere in the United States, including liberal urban areas. There are even less atheists. (There are however, many, many Americans who, despite their strongly held religious beliefs, nevertheless affirm a robust separation of church and state.)

American urban liberals have no problem with "people of faith" for the very simple reason that the vast majority are also people of faith who openly honor the traditions of their various religious backgrounds. What disturbs urban liberals really is not religious belief, but fanaticism. Likewise, what positively infuriates and drives us to our own expressions of intolerance are not expressions of faith. Rather, what strikes us as galling are all the smug, self-righteous proselytizers and moralizers, not to mention the blatant political opportunism indulged in by a narcissistic, vocal minority who try to dictate to the rest of us what is Religiously or Culturally Correct. This is especially so when it comes to science: put bluntly, the promoters of "intelligent design" creationism on rural school boards are dangerously ignorant. (Not that most non-scientific liberals have any reason to feel superior: Urban liberals are typically just as ignorant of basic science as their rural cousins. But at least we have the cultural decency not to support organizations which proactively advocate ignorance as official public policy.)

Even, so, even with the common urban liberal intolerance for religious and political extremism of the Rushdoony/Randy Weaver ilk, I was reminded, when I read Dave's book, of the relationship Michael Pollan developed with Joel Salatin in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan is the epitome of an elite liberal urban foodie - his final section on hunting wild pig is an excruciating embarrassing ordeal to read even, or maybe especially, for a liberal- yet he forms what seems to be genuine admiration, even friendship, for Salatin, a “beyond organic” dairy farmer who happens to be a born-again graduate of the reprehensible Bob Jones University. Even with all their differences, however, Salatin’s deep knowledge of sustainable, responsible farming, as well as the fact that he practices what he preaches, provide him with a rich set of values that Pollan - and many of us who care about food quality - can share. Indeed, through Pollan’s eyes, we more than tolerate Salatin: we deeply respect him to the point that we are shocked when Pollan reports the vulgar intolerance of a fellow urban foodie who - in perfect illustration of Neiwert’s point - is contemptuous of the fish signs that adorn Salatin’s front door.

But note where a sharing of values between the “secular” cosmopolitan and fundamentalist rural cultures occurs - not inside a specific religious tradition, but within the secular moral space created by the structure of American governance, a structure which produces a tolerant environment by denying the establishment of any religion. In other words, it is only within a liberal cultural space that such a genuine tolerance and respect of radically disparate worldviews, such as Pollan for Salatin, can find a home.

This brings me back to the question that has puzzled me from the day I began trying to find active ways to confront the right in an effective manner: How can liberals prevent proto-fascists, para-fascists, and fascists from seizing power in America (and I would add, although Dave probably wouldn’t, “again” )? Surely, as Neiwert urges, we always need to better understand our world - not only our own values but the values of those who disagree with us. But that is nowhere near enough.

Fascism feeds on oversimplifications, bigotry, and violent provocation. It parries logic with toxic nationalisms, tribalism, and a fist. No amount of calm persuasion will open the mind of a Christian Reconstructionist, a white supremacist, or their more cleaned-up-for-primetime enablers like Coulter, Limbaugh, Bachmann, and Palin.

To counter the modern American right will take a rhetoric that surely places reality, reason, and logic front and center. But that rhetoric needs also to contain a healthy dollop of ridicule and contempt (thank you, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert). It must know when to confront the buffoons (such as Dave’s willingness to rebut Jonah Goldberg), and when to usefully ignore them (e.g., well-known scientists’ refusal to debate creationists).

And it will take books as compelling as The Eliminationists.