Extremism In America
By now, everyone has heard of the white supremist and anti-Semite who went on a shooting spree in the Holocaust Museum, killing one guard and injuring another visitor.
The attack was horrible, and served as a reminder of the need for a reminder of the Holocaust, and of the fact that anti-Semitism is still an issue today. The shooter was a man called James W. von Brunn, an eighty-eight year old white supremist who was convinced that Bush was behind 9/11 and that Obama is a puppet of the Jews. Von Brunn felt the proper response to these facts was violence.
He’s pretty alone in that line of thought. A white supremist group condemned his actions, saying that “the responsible white separatist community condemns this. It makes us look bad.” (Actually, I wasn’t aware that there was a responsible white separatist community, nor that it was possible to make it look any worse). Conservatives were horrified at the blatant and violent anti-Semitism, while liberals alternated between expressing horror and trying to tie the attacks to conservatives. (Because the party that essentially thinks Israel can do no wrong is filled with anti-Semites).
One thing that virtually everyone agrees on is that von Brunn acted more or less alone; that virtually no one actually agrees with him, and such extremism is limited to a few eccentric loners. Most of us in the Western world feel that extremism just isn’t done anymore, that the extremists out there either belong to a different culture (Islam), or a small, creepy cult, or in their basement furiously posting stuff on their favorite forum. But extremism, of any kind, isn’t something that more than a few people could get in to. Most people believe that extremism exists only as an eccentricity, but rarely or never as a movement, at least not in the Western world.
They could be wrong, and in fact I think they are. Scary, extremist movements aren’t nice to think about—they summon up images of Nazi Germany and racist mobs—but they exist. And while predicting the future is difficult, and foolish, I think there is reason to believe they could grow.
Case in point: England. The United Kingdom is very liberal compared to the U.S.—accepted political figures in America like Jim DeMint or Bobby Jindal would be off the political map there. Britain looks down on America as a backwards, conservative country dominated by reactionaries.
So guess which country saw a racist, white supremist party make significant gains in their recent elections?
The British National Party (BNP) is more or less unapologetically fascist—its domestic policies are fairly similar to the British Labour Party, with the caveats that the BNP favors discrimination against gays, immigrants, and blacks. It’s a nasty, unnecessary party. It also won over six percent of the vote in Britain’s recent elections.
There were reasons for that—turnout was low, and many Britons are disgusted over recent expenses scandals in their government. But then, that sort of thing isn’t exactly unprecedented. If all it takes to give an extremist party power is corrupt politicians and low turnout, then the United States is ready for an extremist takeover right now.
That’s hyperbole, maybe, but it’s not as insane as one might think. In America today, both sides see the other as a rational person might see a party like the BNP—as immoral, over-the-edge extremists. Conservatives see themselves as a beleaguered, silent majority, with their rights trampled on by elites in the government and the media. Liberals see conservatives as evil, backwards monsters willing to stop at nothing to achieve their aims.
Both sides try to paint the other as extremists, but the liberal movement takes this demonization the farthest. Take David Letterman’s joke about Bristol Palin getting knocked up at a Mets game, or Leonard Zesnick’s assertion that Sean Hannity gives white supremists “rational justification,” or HuffPo writer Michael Rowe’s (wholly false) claim that Sarah Palin supporters waved watermelon slices and stuffed monkeys at her rallies. These comments are supposed to be taken seriously, yet are total nonsense (or deeply offensive, in Letterman’s case). Yet many people believe them.
You can find similar, though generally not as egregious, comments on the conservative side as well. And this sort of attitude paints the other side as wholly alien and other, and paints the “right” side as the only legitimate ideology. This sort of attitude distorts the middle. For example, Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama are fine as examples of the right and left in American politics, respectively. But I wouldn’t like to live in an America where either represented the center—in such an America, people like Michael Savage or Michael Moore would represent legitimate viewpoints. And that is not a good thing.
Our current polarization is somewhat inevitable, and neither side really bears the blame for it. Given the wide gap between left and right in this country, reducing the animosity between the two sides is a difficult task. Failing to do so won’t necessarily result in a growth of extremism. But it will give extremism a better chance to thrive.