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New SPLC Hatewatch post

December 18, 2013

Me on MRAs and Misandry on Campus

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

December 6, 2013

Here is a piece about Mandela that I wrote for; a website that probably doesn’t have much crossover with this one.

Nelson Mandela: A Great Fulcrum that Moved the World

Nelson Mandela enjoyed such a long twilight that it’s easy to forget what a threatening figure he once cut—not just in South Africa but in the United States, where he was routinely condemned as a Communist terrorist. In 1985 William F. Buckley wrote: “where Mandela belongs…is precisely where he is: in jail.”

Mandela made no bones about being a revolutionary; he sought not just to “reform” the system of apartheid, to moderate its “excesses,” but to wipe it off the face of the earth.

Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he is often compared, was a preacher first and a patriot second. He sought to redeem his nation by persuading it to live up to its own highest ideals. Mandela was educated by Christian missionaries but he grew up to become a lawyer, and he approached his mission with a prosecutorial intensity. The apartheid system, he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that had kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries.” It was “diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and overwhelming in its power.”

Like King, Mandela was impressed with Gandhi, but unlike King, he came to believe that nonviolence can be effective only when your enemy plays by the same rules you do. The apartheid regime—which denied not just his rights but his humanity—manifestly did no such thing. “Nonviolence was not a moral principle,” he wrote, “but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”

Mandela never claimed to be a saint. He was a fighter and a politician and a consummate survivor, but what made him such a transcendent figure was his capacity for forbearance. In 1997, when his transformation from prisoner of the state to head of the state was complete, he was anything but vindictive. In victory, he found his pulpit. “I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence,” he wrote; “I reminded people again and again that the liberation struggle was not a battle against any one group or color, but a fight against a system of repression.”

Mandela recognized that South Africa’s whites were also held back by apartheid; the system didn’t cut them off just from the world but from their own better natures. He became close to Christo Brand, one of his warders at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. One day he wrote Brand’s wife a letter. “Your husband,” he informed her in fluent Afrikaans, “is a very talented man with a heart of gold….But he lacks determination, and consequently neglects his own interests and future, as well as those of his wife and children. On countless occasions I have tried to persuade him to study, but my attempts have failed completely. I must now request your help. Perhaps you will succeed in getting him to do what other responsible young people across the world do—promote their interests and futures.”

Apart from his own studies, Mandela’s favorite pastimes during his nearly three decades behind bars were tennis and gardening. “A garden,” he wrote in a much-quoted passage in his autobiography, “was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction.” It’s tempting to read a Zen-like detachment into his words, but they are anything but. “The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom,” he continued.

“In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed.”

There is the calm of egolessness, but there is also the grit of perseverance and even a certain hint of ruthlessness: Preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed.

After interviewing Mandela for the New York Times in 1997, Anthony Lewis attempted to unravel the enigma of his strength. “He is both an autocrat and a democrat,” one of Mandela’s former colleagues told him. “But he has an unyielding respect for human beings, and for law. What other leader of a liberation movement has subjected himself to legal limits when he won power?”

Lewis noted Mandela’s “discipline, his mastery of symbols, his single-minded purpose, his magnanimity, his patience, his realism, his sense of power.” He quoted Nadine Gordimer on Mandela’s “total lack of personal self-protection and vanity.” But what about his pride? Lewis asked her. “Not pride,” she answered; “self-respect. You’re entitled to that when you know who you are and what you stand for.”

History will remember Mandela as one of the great transformational figures of all time, but if the world changed beyond recognition during his long life, Mandela remained essentially the same: confident in his rightness, unyielding in his determination and, though not always gentle, never mean. He was the still center around which others turned, a great fulcrum that moved the world.

We Have Met the Enemy and It is Us

November 18, 2013

A critical distinction and one that we should keep in mind as the JFK anniversary approaches: The problem with conspiracy theory isn’t that it believes that the government is not to be trusted.  The trouble with conspiracy theory is its simplism; its simple faith that by holding a mirror up to the power structure its shadow opposite can be discerned–that the enemy isn’t the hegemon we know, but a hidden hegemon that can be known.

Our big trouble isn’t that outsiders (Communists, Fascists, Jewish globalist bankers) have secretly subverted our otherwise flawless system–it’s that the system itself is systemically corrupt.


Hammer Museum Forum

November 12, 2013

Here is the podcast for the forum I did on “Conspiracy Theory and Real World Challenges” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last month, with Ian Masters and Kathryn Olmstead. And here is the video.

Election Day

November 6, 2013

So, Virginia, NYC, NJ.

In Virginia, it went the way demographics said it should–Cuccinelli won all but the densest parts of the state. McAuliffe’s ties to the national Democratic party and his ethical challenges should have made him a weak candidate; Cuccinelli is an anti-government religious extremist. Maybe they cancelled each other out?

But I think the conventional wisdom about what happened up here is dead wrong. Even if he did win an amazing third of New Jersey’s Democratic voters, Christie, who was blessed with a weak rival and made sure that no one was turning out to vote for Cory Booker this week, is neither bi-partisan nor liberal (though he’s not a Tea Partier either). When someone wins that big, it’s not because of ideology but because of his personal branding and celebrity–people genuinely like the guy or they can’t see any reason to replace him. Christie may well be a game-changer for the Republicans, but he hasn’t framed a post-partisan ideology, just a brand that wins elections. Or that won this one, anyway.

And then Bill DeBlasio–again, such a huge margin. Paradoxically, the unanimity of his support speaks to our polarization in other ways. His victory is tectonic, yes, but it is not a new alignment so much as it is a reaction–specifically to Bloomberg’s third term.

New York City is a liberal, diverse place, yes, but if DeBlasio really was a Sandinista, he wouldn’t have won by so much. When EVERYBODY votes for you, it can’t be about ideology, which by definition is divisive–it’s about identity. Since neither DeBlasio nor Lhota had any personal celebrity of their own going into the election, it reflects on the person who did–and how strongly voters identify with or against him.

Not because of his politics, but because of his outsize presence and staying power, Mike Bloomberg is a little like FDR–he’s the only mayor my 16-year-old can remember. He was in office for too long and he was rightly identified with the global one percent. As Steven Wishnia puts it over at TPM, his agenda created a city that excluded most of the people who live here.

The multibillionaire mayor is often hailed as a visionary, and he was one. His vision was of New York as a “luxury brand,” a city catering to the global rich, with skyscrapers, high-end housing and upscale entertainment maximizing the value of every inch of real estate–like a Dubai on the Hudson, only more environmentally friendly and pro-Israel. In his ideology, the purpose of government was to facilitate this. The Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn was rezoned and packed with luxury high-rises, and the administration is preparing to evict scores of mostly immigrant-owned auto-repair businesses in Queens near the Mets’ new stadium to make room for a massive mall, hotel, and luxury-housing complex.

To see this vision encapsulated–hey babe, take a walk on the High Line. A former elevated freight railroad on Manhattan’s west side, it’s been converted to an aboveground park. It’s a fabulous city-of-the-future tableau, overlooking the streets and the Hudson River, lined with grass and art installations, wending between gleaming new high-rises. The underside is that most of those buildings were erected by politically connected developers and tax-subsidized in exchange for a token amount of non-luxury housing. And you have to look pretty hard to see black people or Latinos who aren’t security guards.

Any analysis that denies or elides how economically divided we are kind of misses the point, I think. One thing about New York: the one percent is so much in everybody’s faces that even the top 32 percent, who are doing pretty well all things considered (the group that DeBlasio belongs to) resents them too.

Groundhog Day

November 4, 2013

No matter how you tell the story, it feels a little like Ground Hog Day, doesn’t it?

First comes the breaking news. Gunshots are reported–at a school, an office park, a government facility, an airport. CNN and Fox assemble panels of experts to extemporize while helicopter views of a building surrounded by emergency vehicles, lights flashing, fills the screen.  As uniformed personnel mill around in the background, breathless evacuees and eye-witnesses are interviewed. A steady stream of updates scrolls by on the ticker: Fatalities are confirmed, denied, and re-confirmed; the White House reveals that the president has been briefed on the situation. Grave-visaged police officials preside over press conferences, snippets of which are endlessly rerun. Eventually the perpetrator is identified or misidentified, then wounded, captured, or killed.

It pretty quickly emerged that the gunman at LAX on Friday, Paul Ciancia, was carrying a “manifesto” that was filled with buzzwords associated with paranoid right wing conspiracism, like “New World Order” and “fiat currency.” Mark Potok of the SPLC explained:

Ciancia’s language and references seemed to put him squarely in the conspiracy-minded world of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. The New World Order refers to a longstanding conspiracy theory that today, in its most popular iteration, claims that global elites are plotting to form a socialistic “one-world government” that would crush American freedoms. Often, the root of the alleged conspiracy is traced to the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve and the adoption of fiat currency — paper money that is not backed by gold, as it was once was in the U.S.

So-called Patriots also increasingly see the DHS, which produces intelligence assessments of extremists that are distributed to other law enforcement agencies, as an enemy and even a collaborator in the New World Order conspiracy. Many believe DHS has targeted their movement and is somehow connected to the alleged construction of concentration camps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The purported camps are thought to be meant for those Americans who resist a coming national seizure of all weapons from U.S. citizens.

Potok waited some 24 hours before he posted his piece; by then Alex Jones and his proxies at Infowars and elsewhere had long-since “exposed” the event as a clumsily conceived and poorly executed psy op–so inept, they said, that you really had to wonder if the puppet masters weren’t simply laughing at our expense.

First the LA Times reported that the gunman was a TSA agent; then they retracted the claim, because if he was just a disgruntled employee, there’d be no need for a massive government crackdown on Christians and Patriots, would there? And look at his name: Paul Ciancia, or if you need to have it spelled out for you, CIAnCIA.

And how convenient is it that he was carrying literature about the NWO? Gun grab, anyone? “It seems like everything that the news media and the anti-gun legislators could hope for. You have your AR-15 finally, a reason to keep the TSA in the airports, your extra ammo, and anti-government documentation usually used by what the media is pointing out ‘by Right Wing Christian Hate Groups.’”

If you don’t think this was a staged event, then what do you make of the rehearsals that the police admitted to? What possible reason would the people tasked to protect airports have had to prepare for an armed assault on an airport unless they planned to carry out one themselves? It was all a “pretext to further militarize TSA procedures and also demonize official enemies, including Alex Jones and Glenn Beck.”

These alleged “writings” will undoubtedly be used to expand the rightwing meme and underscore the supposed need to deal with violent antigovernment radicals, i.e., anybody who voices displeasure with big government and the growth of a police state apparatus used against political enemies of the establishment. The murder of a frontline TSA hireling will inject the needed degree of urgency to deal with the problem of Americans growing increasingly angry and restless over TSA molestation and wholesale violations of the Fourth Amendment.

It’s true that that that telltale document could have been forged and planted, though it’s even more likely that it authentically signals Ciancia’s real sympathies. Assuming he recovers from his wounds, that he isn’t declared insane, and that he doesn’t plead guilty, more information will undoubtedly come out at his trial.

Ironically, given his apparent taste for conspiracism, it seems pretty unlikely that the 23-year-old Ciancia, described as an unemployed motorcycle mechanic, was a part of an organized conspiracy–either an orchestrated right wing plot to strike out at the DHS or a leftwing plot to plant yet another false flag. Why would anyone have bothered? I mean, let’s face it–a murder spree at an elementary school, an explosion at the Boston Marathon, and another mass shooting at a military facility didn’t move the country’s needle against guns. Surely the killing of “a frontline TSA hireling” wouldn’t either.

When I was at LAX last week, I received mixed signals from the TSA. When I got off the freeway and entered the airport, I had to drive through a makeshift gauntlet staked out by traffic cones. Heavily armed men in military fatigues peered through the windows before waving me on. Pretty militarized.

On the other hand, once I was in the terminal and checked in, I was told that I had been selected for pre-screening, which allowed me to pass through the machines without taking off my shoes or belt or removing my laptop from its case. Unfortunately, the scanner detected the two jars of harissa that I’d bought at the Farmer’s Market in my overnight bag, which the TSA officer said counted as liquids. He made me go back into the terminal and wait in line to check the bag, which cost me $25.00–a whole lot more than the harissa did. If I were a conspiracist, I’d deduce that the TSA officers were worried that the pre-screenings foretokened layoffs. Harassing innocent passengers like myself was just a prelude.  Eventually a patsy was “recruited” and manipulated with psychotropic drugs and, voila,  a TSA martyr (really a crisis actor, of course) was duly created.

But not only am I not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a little baffled as to why the conspiracists are so defensive. “Potok and the SPLC insinuate that Ciancia is a ‘patriot’ ideologically connected to the those of us who believe the TSA is an unconstitutional Gestapo-like manifestation of an out of control police state,” an outraged Kurt Nimmo of InfoWars declares, insisting that Ciancia, telltale name and all, is “a mentally disturbed individual who threatened to commit suicide not long ago”–a lone nut, in other words.

It seems to me that Nimmo and his friends have a lot to celebrate. Ciancia purchased his gun and his ammo legally and he was able to bring them into an airport. Score two for the Second Amendment. But for some reason, they are outraged that anyone would even entertain the idea that a gun owner who believes that the government is illegitimate and tyrannical would actually use his weapon to strike a blow for freedom.

It’s inconsistent but totally predictable. Like I said, this is Groundhog Day.

The United States of Paranoia

October 30, 2013

I really enjoyed Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It didn’t teach me a lot about the Illuminati and their ilk (who I knew quite a bit about already), but it was fantastic on the ironic post-modern conspiracism of Paul Krasner, Robert Anton Wilson, the Discordians, and later deconstructive groups like the Church of the SubGenius. Walker tells some terrific stories about fake ex-Satanists and the role they played in (re)popularizing the myths about the Illuminati (specifically John Todd) and he showed how far-reaching Mae Brussell’s influence was. Like Kathy Olmstead in Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, he has much to say about the post-Watergate revelations about the government’s activities that in some cases beggared the fantasies of the most perfervid conspiracy theorists.

As someone who is fascinated by the weird synchronicities that are present not just in conspiracy theories but in the lives of the people who dream them up (L. Ron Hubbard’s connection to OTO and Aleister Crowley, for example; the fact that Mark Lane was present at Jonestown; the strange death of Jim Keith of Black Helicopters Over America fame), I was blown away to learn that Discordianism’s co-founder Kerry Thornley (aka Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) served in the Marine Corps with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote an unpublished novel, The Idle Warriors, about him before the JFK assassination. Whittaker Chambers also inspired a fictional character before he became notorious–Gifford Maxim, in Lionel Trilling’s 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey. Walker is great on the relationship between on-line Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and 911, Newtown, and Boston Marathon Trutherism–something that I opined about in my recent Salon piece, but that I know nowhere near as much about as Walker does.

Where I take issue with Walker is his mostly tacit assumption that conspiracism is more often than not an admirable expression of a healthy skepticism–that it signals an independent-minded, anti-authoritarian openness to different ways of thinking. For all their antics, the likes of Robert Welch, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Milton William Cooper, and Alex Jones are not Absurdists, post-modernists, or even the live-and-let-live libertarians that they are sometimes presumed to be–they have real agendas and their thinking is rigid and dogmatic in the extreme. He underplays the toxicity and the ubiquity of the Protocols and, indeed, the significance of their content. And while I agree with him that liberal watchdog groups like the SPLC and the ADL can be annoyingly humorless and literal-minded, that they are sometimes no less alarmist than their wrong-thinking adversaries are, and that their scare-mongering statistics about hate groups are biased to maximize fund-raising, I vehemently disagree that the connections they draw between conspiracism and programmatic hatreds are paranoid in their own right.

I am a free speech absolutist; I defend anyone’s right to deny the Holocaust, bait gays or women, or defend indefensible propositions about the genetic superiority of one race over another. But I do believe that hateful words have consequences. No, Sarah Palin’s bulls-eye map didn’t directly inspire Jared Lee Loughner to murder 19  people in Tucson. The SPLC’s designation of the Family Research Council as a “hate group” didn’t cause Floyd Corkins to shoot Leonardo Johnson in the arm either. But contempt breeds contempt; it poisons discourse across the board and it can have the effect of normalizing violence. I deplore it and I believe that it needs to be called out–whether it appears on an obscure racist website, in Ron Paul’s ancient newsletters, in a joke that a US Congressman tells at one of his fundraisers, or a plank that finds its way into the Republican platform. The content of a group’s or a person’s beliefs–the texts they refer to, the authorities they cite, the tenets they adhere to–are always relevant, especially if they turn on the immutable evil of an identifiable group of people. This is why I wrote The New Hate, after all.

Walker’s culture criticism is entertaining; he is smart, witty, and knowledgeable about a wide range of esoterica; he made me feel woefully uninformed about things that I’m supposed to be expert in. For the most part, he strikes the right balance between empathy and doubt. “We should be skeptical, yes, of people who might be conspiring against us,” he writes. “But we should also be skeptical–deeply, deeply skeptical–of our fearful, fallible selves.”

Truer words have never been written. Still, he left me with the disquieting feeling that when it comes to the big overbearing hatreds that underlie so much of conspiracy thinking, he is a little bit too skeptical–or too willing to turn a blind eye.


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