Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama's Election and the Rise of Hate Groups in America: Old Hate, New Masks

Even before I read news this weekend that the Southern Poverty Law Center sees hate groups gaining in numbers now (,,;jsessionid=A48A7F08AF6F6DA19DA1BAF24D112C7C?diaryId=8997), I had sketched notes to blog about the need some of us have to keep constructing new enemies even as our former ones wiggle out of our sights. I’m particularly interested in tracking this phenomenon after the election of Obama and the turn of the U.S. away from a politics of neoconservative dominance.

The Southern Poverty Law Center thinks that the election of an African-American president is causing a spike in hate groups in the U.S. The troubled economic times through which we’re now passing also cause some folks to turn to hate as a way of venting economic frustration.

It certainly makes sense to me that hate groups would be on the rise as a result of both factors. But I also think something else is going on now with the phenomenon of organized hate, in the wake of Obama’s election and the nation’s repudiation of the ideology of neoconservatism that has dominated our political discourse for decades now. I suspect that we are living at a moment of confusion and fear on the part of the right, in which there is a desperate need to construct new enemies (or reframe old enmities in new representations)—precisely because the tried and true discourses of demonization have begun to fragment, with the shift from neoconservativsm.

What remains constant is the need to hate. What shifts is the way that hate is expressed, those it targets, how it constructs itself. In my view, we are in for a hard ride now, not merely because the economy is tanking and we have elected an African-American president. We’re in for a difficult period because those who consider it important to hate are not precisely sure how to do so in the new America taking shape right now. We’re going to see a lot of free-floating hate in coming days, hate looking for targets: hate casting about to find sore points in the psyche of our culture, which it can manipulate to elicit more hate.

I’ve watched this search to groom hate develop on the blog of my statewide free newspaper Arkansas Times. I’ve been fascinated by one poster, in particular, who logged in with guns blaring during the period preceding the national elections. This is a poster whose raison d’être is to stir hate. In any way he can. By any means he can.

When he arrived on the Arkansas Times blog, he announced he wouldn’t be voting for McCain, who was evidently too close to the center for this blogger. He’d be sitting out the elections.

But not—definitely not—as a critic of his own party silent about the shortcomings of the other. The blogger has made it plain he intends to attack, to subvert, the other side in any way he can do so. He’s not merely a loyal critic of his friends; he’s a bitter, partisan enemy of everyone else. He is adroit about sowing seeds of disinformation, and unapologetic about doing so, when that disinformation serves his political purposes—to stir hate and stop constructive discourse that might fashion a new political consensus.

This professional hate monger has a modus operandi that has become very clear to me, as I’ve watched him at work. Anytime the blog posts an article that he can twist towards hate, he immediately logs in to inject his dose of toxins. He does so at the outset of the conversation, to try to determine the conversation—to twist it. To poison it.

All that takes place on the thread he has thus tainted then turns into commentary, either overt or covert, on the hate he has introduced. Everything becomes a response, covert or overt, to the parameters of hate he has set for the conversation. In this way, he controls the conversation, even when folks try to ignore him. Just as right-wing talk radio hosts, whose “ideas” he constantly channels to the moderate-leaning Arkansas Times blog, seek to do: framing the cultural discourse so that we can never move beyond anger, hate, targeting of perceived enemies, shouting, lying.

Framing the discourse, that is, so that they can remain on top—white males. In control of everything. Letting us know when it is safe for us to move forward. Preventing us from doing so until they give the word.

As I watch this professional hater at work, it becomes increasingly clear to me that his hate is clinical, and if I can use this word, even clean. He is not motivated by hate, precisely. He is not passionate about those he hates.

What he is passionate about is hate itself, rather than the object of hate—about keeping hate alive, about the clinical, clean pursuit of a politics framed by hate. He is passionate about keeping hate alive so that our culture can remain gridlocked in the shouting match that enables big boys like this hater to continue their illusion of illusion of being in control. This is not a politics that wants to go somewhere specific. It is a politics that wants to stop all forward movement at any cost possible, including the cost of social fragmentation.

In fact, it is a politics intent on stopping forward movement at the deliberate cost of fragmenting our society, because fragmentation produces the stasis those manipulating social antagonisms need, in order to assure their control.

I have been fascinated by the constancy of this blogger’s hate, and at the same time, by the shifting face of those we are instructed to target as the enemy. Same language, different faces. During the election, mindless liberals and Democrats were the targets—even, God help us, FDR and Jimmy Carter. Once the election had ended and there was discontent in many quarters with the victory of proposition 8 in California and of the adoption initiative in Arkansas, the hate shifted to gays: animals rampaging in the streets, we were told, attacking godly citizens whose majority vote had just put them in their place, back in their cages.

Point out any parallel between the struggle of gay citizens for civil rights and the struggle of black citizens for rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and this blogger will immediately inform you that blacks don’t like having their admirable civil rights struggle equated with the illicit struggle of dirty gay animals. Though he’s a white male (or represents himself as such—and I have no reason to doubt this self-representation), he regards himself as the spokesperson of all people of color, when it comes to the relationship of black folks and gay folks. He places himself in that role even though, when it is convenient for him to attack people of color as animals, he does so with the same vengeance he deploys in his anti-gay rhetoric.

This man also occasionally seeks to paint himself as a God-fearing Christian, though that aspect of his political discourse is always muted and always subordinated to the need for hate. God and faith are tools to bolster, not to curb, hate. Hate comes first. One has the sense, listening to this professional hater, that he's not really interested in religious issues at all; he's interested in their utility for stirring hate.

For some time after the election, and after the protests about proposition 8 died down, this hate-monger went silent. He did so because—this is clear in comments he has made since returning to the board—the victory of Obama and of Democrats in elections across the nation has left him baffled. That victory has left him confused regarding his hate. Not whether to hate, but how to hate, in the new political culture now taking shape in our nation with the elections.

Consequently, this advocate of hate is now logging in with postings that try out new lines of hate, tentative castings in this or that pond of hate, to see who will bite. The problems in Gaza have given him room to try on a refurbished Islamophobic face. Whisper that Israel may not be admirable in its treatment of its Islamic neighbors, and the hate-monger will be quick to tell you that you are an antisemite and Muslims—all Muslims—are brown-skinned terrorists trying to find ways to worm themselves into our nation and overthrow it from within.

If Muslims are bad—if we need them to be bad, in our black-white formulas of hate—then Jews must be good. We need them to be good, in those formulas. All Muslims. All Jews.

This, I propose, is the kind of hate we are now going to see on the rise after Obama’s election—free-floating hate desperately looking for some enemy, any enemy, to keep the politics of division alive. In direct proportion to the check that the turn from neoconservativism poses to these haters, their hate will become stronger. It has to become stronger, since they have constructed their whole identity as white men on top around the politics of hatred and division. And it has to strengthen because the possibility of a cultural turn that will make such hatred superfluous is becoming more apparent.

Look for hatred to be on the rise now: the Southern Poverty Law Center is correct about that. But look for it to be seeking new ways to represent itself and its enemies. Look for it to be more adroit about the lies it tells to justify its existence.

And saying that leads me to two predictions for the coming year, vis-à-vis the religious right:

1. Look for the religious right to try desperately to represent itself as a kinder, gentler version of its old self, as it crafts new strategies of outreach to youth: campus visits, campus crusades, enhanced web technologies. And newly minted lies about gays and gay marriage . . . .

2. Look for the new kinder, gentler religious right to pitch itself to the African-American community as a strong ally, even as the religious right works overtime to drive new wedges between the black and the gay communities. The invitation of Rick Warren to speak this year at Ebenezer Baptist church’s MLK celebration is just the beginning. Under the aegis of strengthening ties between white and black evangelicals, we’re going to see a strongly revved-up attempt to continue to make inroads into the black community, to promote an anti-gay agenda. And we’re going to see lots of money thrown in the direction of conservative evangelical black churches, to achieve these ends—money ostensibly given to bolster the faith-based outreach efforts of those churches. You ain’t seen nothing yet . . . .

And as these new manifestations of tired old hate wearing the latest fashions take place in the U.S., count on the Vatican to ramp up its lies and its attack on science, insofar as science does not reinforce the Vatican’s need to construct some groups—women and gays, for instance—as objects of hate. Look for the Vatican to lie more and more boldly about scientific “findings” like how women’s urine is polluting the environment and causing male infertility. As my friend Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism has been pointing out for some time now, watch the Vatican try to frame discourse around environmentalism to convey some very reactionary concerns, in the coming year.

(Can the Vatican engage in hate speech? Yes. Is the pope Catholic?)

It’s only now getting underway, and those of us who want something different—something constructive, something based on energies other than hate—need to be vigilant, if we do not want these new manifestations of hate to capture the attention of the cultural mainstream.

The graphic is the current Stand Strong Against Hate map at Southern Poverty Law Center's website. Red areas are documented hate groups; green ones are citizens who have joined the SPLC's Stand Strong Against Hate project.