Within a week after right-wing Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, many of them children, the US Republican Party leadership, in an effort to rally its members in the budget battle with the Obama administration, screened a short clip from the 2010 Ben Affleck movie, “The Town.” The exchange between a young thug, played by Affleck, and one of his fellow ruffians, played by Jeremy Renner, proceeds as follows:
Ben Affleck: “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” Jeremy Renner: “Whose car are we going to take?” Affleck and Renner proceed to don hockey masks, break into an apartment, and bludgeon two men with sticks and shoot a third in the leg.
What is shocking about this incident coming so closely on the heels of the media coverage of the slaughter of scores of innocent young people in Norway by an ideological extremist is that it reveals the moral blindness and political indifference of the Republican Party leadership to its own growing extremism by openly embracing the relationship between images of violence and hate and the murderous acts that sometimes follow. Yet, in this case, the indifference turned to something more troubling, in that, by using the clip from “The Town,” it appears that Republican leaders used gratuitous images of mind-crushing violence and retribution as a legitimate, even inspiring, framework for motivating support for legislative practices that will have deleterious, even violent, impacts on vulnerable populations in the United States, especially children. This is not merely barbarism parading as political reform – it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and a theater of cruelty have become normalized at the highest reaches of government. More so, it suggests a moment in our history when politicians take delight in morally indefensible visions and overtly cruel policies for which Americans should be ashamed.
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As in Norway, most of our domestic acts of terrorism have been committed by homegrown Americans, not members of an extremist Islamic group. According to Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, “The greatest threat of large-scale attacks come from individuals and small groups of extremists who subscribe to radical Islamic or far right-wing ideologies.” LaFree echoes a warning from our own Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has repeatedly insisted, “that Right-wing Conservative extremists would be among the groups most likely to commit an act of mass violence in the United States.” Typically unstated in reports about acts of domestic terrorism in the United States is that a disproportionate number of these acts have been waged against children. Recent US history is replete with examples, from routine KKK and other racist attacks on black children and families in the 1950’s and 60’s, to the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007.
The tragic slayings in Norway raise anew serious questions about domestic terrorism and its roots in right-wing ideology and fundamentalist movements. Breivik’s manifesto “2083” and his murderous actions remind us of the degree to which right-wing extremism is more than a minor threat to American security – a fact we have been all too often willing to forget. The foundation of such violence, and the insistent threat it poses to democracy, is not to be found in its most excessive and brutal acts, but in the absolutist worldview that produces it. As the Swedish religion scholar Mattias Gardell insists, “The terrorist attacks in Oslo were not an outburst of irrational madness, but a calculated act of political violence. The carnage was a manifestation of a certain logic that can and should be explained, if we want to avoid a repetition.”
Elements of such a logic are not only on full display in American society, but are also gaining ground. The influence of extremist and fundamentalist ideologies and worldviews – whether embodied in religion, politics, militarism or the market – can be seen currently in the rhetoric at work at the highest levels of government. How else to explain that just one day after the deficit settlement in Washington, Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, in an interview with a Denver radio station, referred to President Obama as a “tar baby.” It is hard to mistake the racist nature of the use of the term “tar baby,” given its long association as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Soon afterward, Pat Buchanan wrote a column that began with a shockingly overt racist comment in which he writes: “Mocked by The Wall Street Journal and Sen. John McCain as the little people of the Harry Potter books, the Tea Party ‘Hobbits’ are indeed returning to Middle Earth – to nail the coonskin to the wall.” What is clear about this type of racist discourse is that it creates a climate where hatred and violence become legitimate options. It also indicates that the violence of extremist rhetoric is alive and well in American politics; yet, it is barely noticed, and produces almost no public outrage. Moreover, this type of fundamentalism and extremism is about more than just the rise of the Tea Party. It is a growing and ominous force in everyday life, politics, and in the media.
A rigid, warlike mentality has created an atmosphere in which dialogue is viewed as a weakness and compromise understood as personal failing. As Richard Hofstadter argued over 50 years ago, fundamentalist thinking is predicated on an anti-intellectualism and the refusal to engage other points of view. The other is not confronted as someone worthy of respect, but as an enemy, someone who constitutes a threat, who must be utterly vanquished. Michel Foucault goes further and insists that fundamentalists do not confront the other as:
a partner in the search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat…. There is something even more serious here: in this comedy, one mimics war, battles, annihilations, or unconditional surrenders, putting forward as much of one’s killer instinct as possible.
Missing from the fundamentalist toolbox is the necessity for self-reflection, thinking critically about the inevitable limitations of one’s arguments, or being morally accountable to the social costs of harboring racist ideologies and pushing policies that serve to deepen racist exclusions, mobilize fear, and legitimate a growing government apparatus of punishment and imprisonment. What connects the moral bankruptcy of right-wing Republicans who embrace violent imagery in order to mobilize their followers with the mindset of extremists like Breivik is that they share a deep romanticization of violence that is valorized by old and new fundamentalisms, whose endpoint is a death-dealing blow to the welfare state, young people, immigrants, Muslims, and others deemed dangerous and, so, “disposable.”
It is not surprising that Breivik’s radical anti-Islamic views draw repeatedly on the work of a number of American extremists, including Andrew Bostrom, David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes. In contrast to comforting media illusions, we are not talking about the emergence of right-wing lone wolfs who explode in a frenzy of hate and violence, but an increasing pervasive – though not yet dominant – fundamentalist worldview that embraces a circle of certainty, evokes a Manichean struggle between good and evil, espouses an anti-intellectual populism, calls for the banishing of critical intellectuals from the academy, and rails against critical academic fields such as postcolonial studies, feminist studies, peace studies and ethnic studies. And while many of these religious and secular fundamentalists may not argue directly for real violence, they spew out a steady stream of hatred that created the conditions for such violence.
I am not suggesting that Breivik’s actions can be linked directly to right-wing extremism in the Congress and broader society, but it is not altogether unjust to suggest that what they share are a number of core concerns, including a view of immigrants as a threat to American nationalism, an embrace of anti-Muslim rhetoric, a strong espousal of militarism, market fundamentalism, hyper-nationalism and support for a host of retrograde social policies that embrace weakening unions, the rolling back of women’s rights, and a deep distrust of equality as a foundation of democracy itself. Chris Hedges outlines the elements of such a fundamentalism when he writes:
Fundamentalists have no interest in history, culture or social or linguistic differences…. They are provincials…. They peddle a route to assured collective deliverance. And they sanction violence and the physical extermination of other human beings to get there. All fundamentalists worship the same gods – themselves. They worship the future prospect of their own empowerment. They view this empowerment as a necessity for the advancement and protection of civilization or the Christian state. They sanctify the nation. They hold up the ability the industrial state has handed to them as a group and as individuals to shape the world according to their vision as evidence of their own superiority…. The self-absorbed world view of these fundamentalists brings smiles of indulgence from the corporatists who profit, at our expense, from the obliteration of moral and intellectual inquiry.
At work here is a moral and political absolutism that more and more dehumanizes young people, immigrants, feminists, Muslims, and others relegated to the outside of the narrow parameters of a public sphere preserved for white, Christian and male citizens. Breivik acted upon his hatred of Muslims, leftists and immigrants by murdering young people whose activities at a Labor Party Camp suggested they might usher in a future at odds with his deeply racist and authoritarian views. As Scott Shane, writing in The New York Times, put it, and it bears repeating, Breivik, “was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam.”
Breivik names, among others, the right-wing extremist Pamela Geller, “who has called President Obama ‘President Jihad’ and claimed that Arab language classes are a plot to subvert the United States.” More recently, Geller’s xenophobic blog, Atlas Shrugs, has repeatedly attempted, “to unearth Obama’s relationship to Islam [and prove that] Islam is a political ideology [that is] incompatible with democracy.” Geller’s racist and hate-filled blog implied that Breivik’s attack on the Labor youth camp may have been somehow justified because, as she puts it, “the victims would have grown up to become ‘future leaders of the party responsible for flooding Norway with Muslims who refuse to assimilate, who commit major violence against Norwegian natives including violent gang rapes, with impunity, and who live on the dole.” Atlas vomits!
As ThinkProgress’ Lee Fang points out, Geller attempts to prove her point by posting a picture taken on the island camp a few hours before Breivik’s murderous rampage, and she writes, without any sense of remorse, “Note the faces which are more Mlddle [sic] Easter or mixed than pure Norwegian.” While such shocking expressions of racism cannot be directly connected to all forms of fundamentalism, there is nothing in those who espouse this worldview that renders them open or willing to exercise the judgment, critical inquiry, and thoughtfulness necessary to counter and resist such views and the violence to which they often lead. Such worldviews operate on the side of certainty, wrap themselves in a logic that is considered unquestionable, refuse compromise and dialogue, and often invoke a militarized vocabulary to define themselves as soldiers fighting a war for Western civilization. This is a worldview in which ignorance and impotence join with violence, sanctified by a fundamentalism that thrives on conformity and authoritarian populism.
Breivik was not a typical right-wing terrorist. He refused to endorse a strategy that made a claim for racial superiority on biological grounds; more specifically, he recognized that it was not wise tactically, “to oppose immigration and Islam on racial grounds (an argument that would attract few people.)” Instead, he admired and adopted an ideology from those far-right groups that revised old racist beliefs and adopted a new anti-Muslim narrative in which immigrants and those deemed other, “are not biologically inferior, but they are culturally incompatible.” In this case, cultural difference rather than biological degeneration is viewed as a threat to democracy.
While most right-wing politicians, individuals and groups denounce the horrendous violence perpetrated by Breivik, they nonetheless produce and contribute to a culture of violence and rhetoric of demonization that undermines respect for difference, democratic values, and a capacious notion of personal and social responsibility. As recently stated in a study by the Anti-Defamation League:
The hateful rhetoric around the immigration debate has gone beyond the rallies, lobbying and media appearances by anti-immigration advocates. A number of media personalities in television and radio, as well as political leaders, have adopted the same language when discussing immigration issues in this country. These extend from [former] “national TV correspondent Lou Dobbs to more extreme political commentator Patrick Buchanan to local radio personalities to members of Congress such as Tom Tancredo and Steve King … the use of anti-immigrant rhetoric has permeated the culture in our country.”
There are few degrees of separation between far-right extremists such as the late Madeleine Cosman, an alleged medical lawyer, and radio and TV personality Lou Dobbs, yet both have argued that Mexican immigrants are criminals and carriers of diseases such as leprosy. This type of hysterical xenophobia can also be found in the words and actions of New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King, who, as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has opened hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans. This type of racist hysteria (that precludes investigation of other forms of radicalization) is commonplace in America, and is aided and abetted by conservatives such as Buchanan, who writes columns such as “Say goodbye to Los Angeles” filled with apocalyptic visions of the United States being taken over by people of color. This type of rhetoric is easy politics. As such, it is widely used in the United States, and can also be found in the work of the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington,  anti-Muslim bloggers, Christian fundamentalists, Fox News commentators and in anti-immigration policies initiated in a variety of states, with one of the most pernicious examples introduced by state legislators in Arizona. Fundamentalism is as home grown as the Ku Klux Klan and white militia groups, and can be found across a range of groups extending from the Christian right to secular fundamentalists such as Sam Harris.
This type of bigotry and the life-crushing policies it produces can give rise to and spread like a disease; its targets seem to multiply every day in the United States. Indeed, one could argue that the only successful (though hardly cost-effective) war the United States has waged since the 1980’s has been against poor men of color, who now represent 70 percent of all inmates in US prisons. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations are indeed another target of hate, captured for example in one of Buchanan’s recent columns, in which he writes: “What is the moral basis of the argument that homosexuality is normal, natural and healthy? In recent years, it has been associated with high levels of AIDS and enteric diseases, and from obits in gay newspapers, early death. Where is the successful society where homosexual marriage was normal?” There is also the war on youth, which is now in high gear with the implosion of social safety nets, decent housing, health care and the simultaneous rise of the punishing state, this the result of the conservative takeover of a number of state legislators and governorships by radical conservatives and the control of the House of Representatives by right-wing extremists.
This isn’t the kind of direct warfare we saw in Norway, but it is warfare just the same, less spectacular in the short run, but with more casualties in the long run. Consider the actions of Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, in, “spearheading a bill to eliminate KidsCare, the state’s Medicaid Program for children … though twenty three percent of Arizona’s children live in poverty.” What does one say about Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, who, “recently signed into law a bill that eases child labor laws, lowering restrictions on the hours and days teenagers can work.” It gets worse. Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid signaled the current extremism of the Republican Party by highlighting that the legislation they have recently introduced would cut or eliminate Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Over 1.7 million kids would lose health insurance by 2016. Common Dreams reported that, “GOP Florida lawmakers have rejected over $50 million in much-needed federal child-abuse prevention money because it was part of Obama’s healthcare reform package.”
Violence becomes news when its most extreme registers erupt in waves of bloodshed. Yet, there is another kind of violence that can rightfully be viewed as a form of domestic terrorism. It can be seen in an array of statistics that point to the current war on youth: 43.6 millions Americans live in poverty and one child in five is poor; “infant mortality, low birth weight and child deaths under five are ranked higher in the United States as compared to other Western nations and Japan. Among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only Mexico, Turkey and the Slovak Republic have higher infant mortality than the U.S.” As a result of the corruption and crimes of bankers, Wall Street, and the right-wing politicians who have bailed them out and legitimated the deregulatory policies that produced such hardships, millions of people are unemployed and have lost their homes, all of which impacts not just on adults, but on generations of young people condemned to poverty, homelessness, unemployment and a future without hope. This is the violence legitimated by right-wing conservative policies, which contribute to shocking levels of inequality in which the wealth of Hispanics and blacks fell by 66 percent and 55 percent, respectively, between 2005 and 2009. The United States has the highest inequality and poverty rate among the industrialized nations.
Such statistics point to policies that are not simply mean-spirited; they are cruel, sadistic and dishonor the government’s obligations to young people and politically marginalized populations. Economist Paul Krugman rightly claims that, “The G.O.P. budget plan isn’t a good-faith effort to put America’s fiscal house in order; it’s voodoo economics, with an extra dose of fantasy, and a large helping of mean-spiritedness.” Krugman goes further and argues that the American government is being held hostage by a group of Republican extremists who purposely want to make government dysfunctional. Far-right zealots such a Michele Bachmann and her conservative evangelical compatriots embody a mode of fundamentalism that promotes gay-bashing, a disdain for social protections and a deep hatred of government, which is rooted less in political and economic analyses than in biblical stricture and religious values.
Yet, such commitments are not marginal to American politics. For example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) stated that, “After years of discussions and months of negotiations, I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable.” There is more than a covert racism at work here, given the extremist views about Obama that inform much of the Republican Party, there is also a cult of certainty that has given political extremism a degree of normalcy, while at the same time indicating the degree to which such thought now permeates American society. In fact, absolutist thought is now driving official state and federal policy and pushing an alleged liberal Obama to a far-right position, all in the name of a cowardly appeal to bipartisanship and a deeply flawed notion of consensus. Not only is the power of market-driven casino capitalism at its zenith, but a culture of fundamentalism has become the driving force in American politics that is only a few degrees away from an outright embrace of a 21st century authoritarianism.
What is interesting, and quite frightening, about Krugman’s analysis of the growing fundamentalism and religiosity of American politics is his insightful claim that such a move is being abetted by a dominant media apparatus that views extremist ideas within what he calls a “cult of balance,” in which such views are treated as just one more legitimate opinion. Listen to Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, on any given night, and you get firsthand one of the worst offenders of the cult of balance. Krugman is worth citing on this issue. He writes:
News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides. Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read, “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom? The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism.
All of which is to say that there is another side to right-wing fundamentalism that needs to be addressed outside of its xenophobic, homophobic, antigovernment, antifeminist and youth-hating beliefs, which have become increasingly normalized, legitimated and defined loosely as just another view in American society. Yet, this is about more than the rise of a hate-filled fundamentalism and populist anti-intellectualism that scorns debate, dialogue and critical exchange. It is also symptomatic of the end of politics, and, by default, signals the death knell of democracy itself. Politics becomes moribund when dialogue, critical exchange, reasoned arguments, facts, logic and critical modes of education become objects of derision and contempt.
Right-wing extremism is nourished when the formative culture that makes democracy possible is defunded, commercialized and diminished – when it is eroded and increasingly ceases to exist. Right-wing extremism and the fundamentalist logic it embraces is not merely a security threat; it does not simply produce terrorists. It actively wages a war on the very possibility of judgment, informed argument and critical agency itself. It opens the door for lies and omissions parading as truth, ignorance celebrated as informed reason and the dismissal of science as just another worthy opinion.
In the end, violence emerges as a legitimate strategy to weed out those not on the side of an unquestioning moralism. Education redefined as training, fear driven by political illiteracy and authoritarian populism parading as the will of the people speak to what philosopher Hannah Arendt once called “dark times,” to refer to that period in history in which the forces of totalitarianism and fascism extinguished reason, thoughtful exchange, discerning judgments, justice and truth. We are once again in on the brink of “dark times” and the clock is not merely ticking. The alarm is blaring, and yet the American public refuses to wake from a nightmare that is about to become a dreadful and punishing reality.
Of course, history is open, and we have witnessed in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Greece and other countries, men, women and young people who have refused the established and beckoning forms of authoritarianism, giving rise to collective revolts that display immense courage and hope. It is past time for Americans to look beyond existing forms of leadership, the tired vocabularies of established political parties, the thoughtless stenography dispersed by mainstream media and the official view of democracy as just another form of consumerism. It is time to look to those struggles abroad that both embrace democracy and embody a form of civic courage in which thinking and morality inform each other in support of a world where young people can flourish, politics becomes a noble practice and democracy has a future.
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1. Judd Legum, “House GOP Plays Ben Affleck Movie Clip to Rally Caucus,” Think Progress (July 26, 2011).
2. As Michael Kazin writes, this type of antigovernment extremism and ideological fundamentalism has been more common on the right than on the left. Most liberals and radicals view the government as one of the few national institutions left to provide social protections and social needs not provided by businesses and charities. See Michael Kazin, “Paranoia Strikes Deep in America … Over and Over,” AlterNet (September 18, 2009). The best history of right-wing authoritarianism can be found in Sarah Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (NY: Guilford Press, 1995); Sarah Diamond, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right (NY: Guilford Press, 2000);
3. Ben Armbruster, “After Right-Wing Pressure, DHS Now Has ‘Just One Person’ Dealing With Domestic Terrorism,” ThinkProgress (July 27, 2011).
4. Chauncey, DeVega, “A Reminder that Whiteness is Not Benign: Of Warnings About White, Middle Class Domestic Terrorists in the U.S. and the Norway Massacre,” AlterNet (July 28, 2011).
5. Mattias Gardell, “The Roots of Breivik’s Ideology: Where Does the Romantic Male Warrior Ideal Come from Today?” OpenDemocracy (August 1, 2011).
6. Aliyah Shahid, “GOP Congressman, Doug Lamborn of Colorado, blasted for likening President Obama to a ‘tar baby,'” Daily News (August 2, 2011).
7. Pat Buchanan, “The Day of the Hobbits,” Town Hall (August 2, 2011).
9. Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Paul Rabinow, ed. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1. (New York: The New Press, 1994), pp. 112-113.
11. The “2083” manifesto can be found here.
12. Chris Hedges, “Fundamentalism Kills,” TruthDig, (July 26, 2011)
14. Lee Fang, “Pam Geller Justifies Breivik’s Terror: Youth Camp Had More ‘Middle Eastern or Mixed’ Races than ‘Pure Norwegian,'” ThinkProgress (August 1, 2011).
15. Her blog Atlas Shrugs can be found here.
18. Mathew Goodwin, “Norway Attacks: We Can No Longer Ignore the Far-Right Threat.” The Guardian (July 24, 2011).
20. A brilliant analysis of this type of racism can be found in many of the works of David Theo Goldberg; see, the more recent, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
21. Report, “Immigrants Targeted: Extremist Rhetoric Moves into the Mainstream,” American Anti-Defamation League (July 2007).
22. Patrick Buchanan, “Say Goodbye to Los Angeles,” WorldNetDaily (June 27, 2011).
24. See Chris Hedges, “Fundamentalism Kills,” TruthDig, (July 26, 2011).
26. The full article and a critical commentary can be found in Murshedz, “MSNBC’s Bigotry Problem – Pat Buchanan – Flares up Again,” Crooks and Liars (July 2, 2011).
27. Sarah Jaffe, “The 10 Scariest GOP Governors: Bring a Radical Right-Wing Agenda to a State Near You,” AlterNet (July 7, 2011).
29. Harry Reid, “GOP Would Cut Health Insurance for 1.7 Million Kids,” Huffington Post (May 31, 2011).
30. Editorial, “When Ideology Gets Abusive,” CommonDreams.Org (July 21, 2011).
31. Ghali Hassan, “American (Real) Exceptionalism,” Counter Currents, (July 22, 2011).
32. Paul Krugman, “Ludicrous and Cruel,” The New York Times (April 7, 2001). For a detailed analysis of how neoliberal ideology and casino capitalism drives these policies, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); also see, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
33. See Sarah Posner, “God’s Law is the Only Law: The Genesis of Michele Bachmann,” Religion Dispatches Magazine (August 1, 2011); Adele M. Stan, “Because the Bible Tells Me So: Why Bachmann and Tea Party Christians Oppose Raising the Debt Ceiling,” AlterNet (August 1, 2011); Amy Davidson, “Michele Bachmann’s Vows,” The New Yorker (July 13, 2011).
34. Cited in Carol E. Lee, Damian Paletta and Naftali Bendavid, “As Talks Stall, New Debt Plan Offered,” The Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2011).