Them and us hide in X-Files

Backfire - A Culture of Conspiracy - American Extremism
September 24, 2004

Hating the "other" is one way of giving ourselves a positive identity. This might appear relatively straightforward when the other is noticeably different (we are white and they are black) and/or when we believe that the other is out to get us or has taken that which is rightfully ours. But identification of the other can become complicated - even, it would at times seem, capricious. The US has recently shifted official external hostility from the threat of communism to the threat of Islamic terrorism; it has, however, also had to cope with the other within - if that does not sound too oxymoronic. These three books examine American right-wing movements that, in one way or another, are identified and identify themselves as in opposition to "conventional America".

David Chalmers, emeritus professor of history at the University of Florida, can claim the distinction of having served time in jail with Martin Luther King. This is not Chalmers' first book on the Ku Klux Klan, but here he focuses on the transformations the Klan has undergone since its conception by six ex-Confederate officers as a social club in Tennessee in 1866. The Klan, led by elites and drawing on a cross-section of white male society, soon became responsible for thousands of murders and other assaults, and, as the post-bellum South embarked on a century of racial segregation, it came to be seen as the hope for deliverance of the downtrodden whites from "the fearful disorder of black inequality".

Between the First and Second World Wars the Klan spread throughout the whole of Anglo-Saxon America, claiming to defend white Protestantism not only from blacks but also from Roman Catholicism. During its third stage, the Klan reverted to a southern working-class concentration on anti-Negro activities, but it had friends in high places and, most notably in the early 1960s, the violence it perpetrated was almost entirely protected from prosecution.

Eventually, however, the immunity it had enjoyed began to dissipate and the civil-rights movement triumphed. This, Chalmers argues, was a victory due in no small part to the horror evoked by the terrorist activities perpetrated by the Klan itself. But then, in the 1980s, there emerged a "fifth era", in which a motley assortment of white-supremacist racists and militia took the lead in breeding hatred of, and promoting violence towards, the black and Jewish Other.

The history of the Klan throughout the 20th century was "a story of a struggle against imagined conspiracies", one of the most powerful being a communist-Jewish plot to overthrow white Christians through a process of integration.

Talk of conspiracy takes us to Michael Barkun, professor of political science at Syracuse University, whose earlier works include Religion and the Racist Right and Disaster and the Millennium . Here, he focuses on conspiracy theorists, giving us a meticulously researched account of the incredible twists and turns the human mind can take in reaching conclusions about how and why the world operates.

Those whom Barkun calls "improvisational millenarians" are convinced that the world is being taken over by others (aliens from outer space, the Illuminati, Catholics, Masons and/or Jews) who are conspiring to create the new world order. Unlike earlier religious or secular millenarians who developed from (or in opposition to) a particular tradition, improvisational millenarians draw on an assorted collection of ideas to be found in the "cultic milieu" via the internet and TV series such as The X-Files . Barkun argues that there are potential dangers in the fact that contemporary conspiracy theories have become an increasingly accepted part of American culture, with an ever-more permeable boundary separating them from what are socially and culturally considered to be mainstream beliefs.

Nonetheless, by definition, the theories consist of what he calls "stigmatised knowledge" - that is, knowledge that has been marginalised (forgotten, superseded, ignored, rejected or suppressed) by those, such as communities of scientific researchers, who conventionally distinguish between acceptable knowledge and error.

There is, however, another way of looking at those who espouse conspiracy theories and fear the new world order. Darren J. Mulloy, a research fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, analyses the American militia movement not as an "other", but as an "us" - or, rather, as an American "us". His argument is that extremism is a relative concept; it does not exist in a vacuum but as an aspect of an entity. Instead of our simply labelling them as anti-pluralist, monistic, paranoid or different in some pejorative way, American extremists can be portrayed as extremely American.

Mulloy contends that the militias use the very same historical resources as those used by mainstream Americans (be they presidents, writers of history books, high-school teachers or makers of popular films such as The Patriot ) in their attempts to bolster their sense of identity, confer significance on their activities and legitimise their various concerns. An appeal to republicanism, for example, is not an alternative to mainstream values; the militias' construction of republicanism is the American tradition. The Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence justified the right of rebellion against an oppressive British monarchy then, and against an oppressive federal Government now. The frontier myth provides additional legitimacy for the deregulation of federal and global government. The Constitution protects the rights of the individual; most crucially, the Second Amendment affirms the right of all US citizens to bear arms and defend (to the death if necessary) their family and "fundamental American values".

But while Mulloy demonstrates how the militias may draw on common cultural values, he also shows that there are distortions when current interests outweigh historical accuracy. Furthermore, the militias have no support from the wider community in the practical application of the shared values.

The boundary is crossed when the militias espouse a vigilante culture that appeals to a "higher law" to resist the commands of tyrants.

These are clearly books that are important to scholars interested in the areas of terrorism, religion and hatred, but they are also books that can be recommended to the lay reader, for they concern issues that increasingly have the potential to affect all our lives. Chalmers' history makes it clear that not only were Klan members the perpetrators of horrendous crimes, they were able to gain the support of many others in positions of authority, and many more turned a blind eye to what was going on. How was this possible? Chalmers might invite us to ask how anyone could condone, let alone carry out, such atrocities, but he offers few, if any, clues.

Although Barkun's analysis of others' constructions of reality is remarkably empathic, it can (and probably should) leave us gobsmacked. The good news may be, of course, that "they" are more like "us" than we had realised - on the other hand, that could be the bad news.

Eileen Barker is emeritus professor of sociology with special reference to the study of religion, London School of Economics.

Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement

Author - David Chalmers
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Pages - 207
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 7425 2310 1

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