It's a neat trick. Not only has the village lunatic gained permission to continue wandering the town square poking everyone he dislikes in the eye with a sharp stick, but he gets to claim victimhood when the victims respond angrily. Unfortunately, in the process, the whole village is transformed, and not for the better.
Rarely has a book been released at a time when it's been more relevant than David Neiwert's The Eliminationists. Neiwert, an award-winning journalist and blogger at Orcinus and of late, at Crooks and Liars, has focused for years on that fine, scary line where heated rhetoric gives way to pure hate speech, and where fantasies of inflicting violence morph into the real thing. With the killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by a white-supremacist radical, an understanding of the right-wing extremists now deeply embedded in the modern conservative movement is more important than ever.
And lucky we are to have such a guide as Neiwert, who over the years has become the absolute master of the study of hate speech, authoritarianism and violence. His new book is the culmination of decades of watching the far right, listening to talk radio, tracking militias and extremists, and cataloging incidents inspired by false facts and the stoking of paranoia. Heck, for the naming of the phenomenon alone, he should be thanked:
Eliminationism: a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination.
Admit it: We all knew there was a better word we were waiting for. Finally, it has arrived. While we're at it, let's have him define an overused (but strangely enough, underdefined) term for us at the outset:
Fascism is passionate nationalism, allied to a conspiratorial dualism and a crude Social Darwinism, voiced with resentment toward the forces, or conditions, that restrain "the chosen people."
Sound vaguely familiar? It should. As Neiwert shows, this country since the 1990s has been undergoing what he terms para-fascist tendencies going mainstream as those once on the fringes have begun infecting one of the two major political parties and co-opting conservatism, making of it the paranoiac, reactionary--and, most frighteningly--increasingly violent crew we now hear regularly on Fox News and on talk radio.
The first portion of The Eliminationists lays out in careful detail the evidence, in cite after cite, of
... a particular trend that has manifested itself with increasing intensity in the past decade: the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement. Rather than engaging in a dialogue over political and cultural issues, one side simply dehumanizes its opponents and suggests, and at times demands, their excision. This tendency is almost singularly peculiar to the American Right and manifests itself in many venues: on radio talk shows and in political speeches, in bestselling books and babbling blogs. Most of all, we can feel it on the ground: in our everyday lives, in our encounters, big and small, with each other.
His insistence on the right-wing nature of modern eliminationism holds up, despite cries from the conservatives that "liberals do it too." Neiwert acknowledges that leftists have been known--less frequently--to toss around talk of assassination or insurrection but, he points out, they tend to focus on threatening talk toward an individual (think Cheney or Bush), not an entire category of human beings. The far right, on the other hand...
In contrast, right-wing rhetoric has been explicitly eliminationist, calling for the infliction of harm on whole blocs of American citizens: liberals, gays and lesbians, Latinos, blacks, Jews, feminists, or whatever target group is the victim du jour of right-wing ire.
This distinction is crucial, and Neiwert makes an alarming case for the fact that the rhetoric that leads up to violent crimes against whole classes of individuals is a necessary ingredient to the carrying out of the penultimate acts, that without the vicious cheerleading, many of the acts would not be carried out because, he says, "such rhetoric has played a critical role in giving permission for it to proceed, by creating the cultural and psychological conditions that enable the subsequent violence." At the bottom of such rhetoric is a savagely anti-democratic, American-hating ethos too, despite the flag-cocooning in which the shouters participate.
Indeed, one of the more disturbing elements in what we are currently witnessing on the right is the "mainstreaming" and normalizing of extremist talk through "patriotic" transmitters. Neiwert explains:
"Transmitters" of fringe ideas into the mainstream have two audiences. The first (and by far the largest) is made up of the many millions of ordinary mainstream conservatives who tune in and log on to the Right's army of media talking heads and movement leaders. The second includes their xenophobic counterparts on the far Right, where the memes come from in the first place. For the latter, these transmissions signal that their formerly unacceptable beliefs are gaining acceptance; they hear these transmissions as an invitation for them to move into the mainstream without having to change their views. The former hears them as an invitation to think more like the latter without shame.
The result of all this perversion of nationalism and so-called patriotism is not just sprees of deadly shootings such as we saw in Pittsburgh. "This kind of rhetoric is, in effect," Neiwert writes, "the death of discourse itself. Instead of offering an opposing idea, it simply shuts down intellectual exchange and replaces it with the brute intention to silence and eliminate." And at the heart of democracy lies the belief that no matter our differences, we are committed to communication. When silence falls, democracy loses, and the author here maintains that when hate rhetoric is employed, at its base it really is a hatred of America itself--with its stated ideals of pluralism--that is the unacknowledged target. "Eliminationism--including the rhetoric that precedes it and fuels it--expresses a kind of self-hatred," Neiwert claims. "In an American culture that advertises itself as predicated on inclusiveness, eliminationism runs precisely counter to those ideals. Eliminationists, at heart, hate the very idea of America."
The sub-textual paradox that the second half of the book balances against such anti-American ideation is ... that such tendencies have been part of America from the start. This latter portion of the book is at times nearly too much to bear as the history of white European domination and eradication of Native Americans is detailed, as well as the lynchings of African Americans, the backlash against Chinese immigrants and the round-up of Japanese Americans for internment bears witness. Indeed, as Neiwert points out, nearly identical language is unleashed today against Latino immigrants as there have been against different waves of "others" in our collectively shameful past; even such modern "heroes" as the Minutemen can trace their lineage back to the lynching mobs and vigilantism of the early 20th century.
Tendencies toward fascism, both in our historical past and in our current political climate, can be triggered by what the author calls "the mobilizing passions." As a checklist, it's probably one of the most useful I've run across:
A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.
The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, both universal and personal, and the subordination of the individual to it.
The belief that the group one belongs to is victimized, which justifies any action without legal or moral limits against the group's enemies, both internal and external.
Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.
The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.
The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason.
The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success.
The right of the "chosen people" to dominate others without restraint from any human or divine law, "right" being decided solely by the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.
While most of these sound at least vaguely familiar, Neiwert goes out of his way, repeatedly, to point out that America is in no way in the throes of true fascism. Even some of the above criteria, he claims, remain clearly unmet. But that "permission" factor, the precursor that hate language brings, is most certainly present.
What, then, is the way out (or back)? How do we, both as individuals and as a country, begin to put the brakes on such eliminationist language? Well, Neiwert has some tough words for liberals, who are, in his estimation, making a bad situation worse:
For all its logic and love of science, a consistent flaw weighs down modern liberalism: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority. (Not, of course, that conservatives are 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 and love of tolerance are maddeningly and disturbingly intolerant of the "ignorance" of their rural counterparts....
If we want to look at all those red counties and come to terms with the reasons the people there think and vote the way they do, it's important to come to terms with our own prejudices, our own willingness to treat our fellow Americans--the ones who are not like us--with contempt and disrespect....
In the end, we cannot prevent fascism from happening here by pretending it is something it is not; it must be confronted directly and straightforwardly, or it will not be confronted at all. Yet, at the same time, those who are the targets of its eliminationist bile must resist the temptation to wield this recognition like a cudgel. We cannot dehumanize and demonize those who have fallen under its sway. And we cannot stop the forces of hate by indulging it ourselves.
Ultimately, Neiwert argues, both sides--liberal and conservative--need to surrender the unhelpful idea that they are the "heroes" of the American story. For in order for there to be a hero, he explains, we need a demonized other from which to "rescue" the nation. True heroism in a democracy is not killing "bad guys" or rounding up scary people or shouting fellow citizens into silence, effectively forcing them to eliminate their voices and themselves from the democratic scene. Rather, it is recognizing the human in the other, the messy nuance of competing interests and sub-cultures, honoring the ability to disagree (strongly) without wishing death or silence on one another. True heroism can look, from the outside, kind of drab and lacking in drama.
And sometimes it can lie in writing a book about a disturbing subject that makes us all take pause and pay attention to the political scene around us in a new way.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.