Fearful Symmetries

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12 March, 2008

American Fascists and the Limits of Tolerance



In general, I'm not much of a horror reader but I recently finished one of the scariest books I've ever read - American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges.

If you live in Madison and want o get a glimpse of some American fascists, just tune into cable channel 353, the Trinity Broadcasting Network. (Charter lumps the station into the Faith and Values View, as if only the religious have purview over values.) You may see Paul Crouch, a TBN big whig, hosting a program. If you're lucky, you may hear him say something similar to what he said on 7 November 1997:

"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and
have not contributed to [the] station, you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven."


And so to the person who wrote a critical letter to Isthmus which had bemoaned the introduction of several new channels (including TBN) to the Faith and Values View, I have to ask: is this the kind of shit you approve of? Telling people to send money or The Man In the Sky Who Doesn't Like Shellfish will turn his back on you is the Christian message you think those big bad secular meanies at Isthmus ought to be ashamed of demeaning?

Hedges attended seminary but eschewed the monastic life in favor of being an intrepid reporter which led him to witness, among other things, the worst humanity has to offer. I don't envy him for what he saw in El Salvador in the 1980s or in Bosnia & Kosovo the following decade but am glad that he wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning which examines the human psyche in wartime. I recommend this book to any and everyone. But since, I'm in a pissy mood, I want to especially recommend it to Chelsea Clinton.

She was here in Madison last month stumping for her mother. Someone asked the younger Ms. Clinton if her mother felt remorse for having voted for a war which has claimed the lives of countless Iraqi civilians. Her reply was: "She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary." It was reprehensible for a young woman of extraordinary privilege to be so snide and to ignore what history tells us – civilians always die in war. It doesn't take clairvoyance to know that, when armies do what armies do, innocents are slaughtered. And to just blithely ignore this by attempting to be witty is inexcusable. To make matters worse, most of the press clippings I read about this fawned over her for supposed cleverness when they should have been chastising her for being callous.

Returning to the matter at hand, Hedges' book is about those members of what he calls "a radical Christian movement" – dominionism. Dominionists are like evangelicals but worse. The movement's name comes from the book of Genesis wherein Yahweh gives mankind "dominion" over creation. Although small in number, they control numerous television networks, such as TBN above, and a couple thousand radio stations. They are intent on seizing power in America and radically reshaping the country in a Christian image of their devising.

Hedges asserts that the leaders of this movement prey on the more impoverished among us and cultivate a culture of despair which makes followers especially receptive to their message. The working class has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs while the rise of exurbs has served to dislocate individuals from communities. Many of the observations in this section of the book parallel what Thomas Frank wrote in What's the Matter With Kansas but there is a crucial difference to be had. Whereas Frank saw a paradox in working class Middle America voting against their interests (i.e. – Republican), Hedges sees no such contradiction. Instead he differentiates between economic interest, which is what Frank referred to, and other/moral interests. It is the latter which many people invoke when supporting Republicans.

What Hedges argues is that many people who are struggling in this country attach themselves to dominionist leaders because of a message. The message is one of certainty in uncertain times and a promise of better things to come. The movement's leaders also ably creates an Other with which followers can easily contrast themselves and thusly demonize – homosexuals, non-believers, secular humanists, et al. There are many quotes in the book which go beyond, say, homophobia, and are just pure expressions of visceral hatred of gay people. Dominionists are drawn together and told that they are "pure" and under siege by those they seek to demonize. Their speech is couched in terms of war with every disagreement a battle and constant calls to take up arms.

The end goal of dominionists is to make America a Christian nation where those outside the group are persecuted. Eschatology is of paramount importance for them as they also have the goal of ushering in The Rapture, which Hedges notes, is not in the Bible. Yes, the Left Behind series is not pure fiction to them. They submit that the Anti-Christ will rule Europe and that their Christian America will fight him during a tribulation, after which they'll go to heaven and be with Yahweh.

Hedges is very adroit at showing how the beliefs and attitudes of the dominionist movement parallel those of other fascists such as the Nazis. There's the same simplified view of binary opposition – us vs. them, we are pure vs. they who stained, and so on. While the views above are certainly repulsive and scary in themselves, they are all the more horrific considering the vast media empires like TBN that espouse them. Speaking of the Christian Right generally, Rev. Dr. Mel White says of his former associates:

They've won the Congress and the presidency, and they're about to win the courts because of their Congress and the president. They've won state houses across the country and precincts everywhere by the political process. So they have done what we didn't do. They have a system to throw democracy out the window.

While Hedges doesn't lay out a detailed plan of action to counter the Christian Right and the dominionists, he does have some admonishments. The most important of them is for liberals to become intolerant of intolerance.

Most liberals, the movement has figured out, will stand complacently to be sheared like sheep, attempting to open dialogues and reaching out to those who spit venom in their faces.

Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we, too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction. The attempts by many liberals to make peace would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. These dominionists hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution, a world they blame for the debacle of their lives. They have one goal—its destruction.


This, I think, is the great lesson of American Fascists. Democrats and liberal Christians need to stop trying to promote this idea that they and the Christian Right all believe in the same deity and can be one big happy Christian family despite their differences. If you support American democracy, there can be no common ground, no negotiating with those intent on destroying it. The CR must be denounced always and not reconciled with; they must be met with opposition at every turn instead of attempts to be brought into the fold. Hedges does not think that the CR are necessarily the Nazis; rather he thinks that another terrorist attack or some such social upheaval is necessary for them to advance. The tendrils of the CR would then be able to extend further into our culture of despair and find new recruits. Hedges says that, in such extreme situations, we must be prepared to counter these American fascists with violence, if necessary.

The thought of having to put down a CR insurrection is not a pleasant thought. I suspect that many of my readers are liberal-minded who find the thought of violence disturbing and find the idea that we ought not try to compromise with the CR in the spirit of a free & open society very discomforting. To drive home Hedges admonishments, I will include another quote from the book. Here, he talks about his ethics professor from divinity school, Dr. James Luther Adams. Adams was in Germany in 1935-36.

He saw in the Christian Right, long before we did, disturbing similarities with the German Christian Church and the Nazi Party, similarities, he said that would, in the event of prolonged social instability, catastrophe or national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of Christianity, rise to dismantle the open society. He despaired of liberals, who he said, as in Nazi Germany,
mouthed empty platitudes about dialogue and inclusiveness that made them ineffectual and impotent. Liberals, he said, did not understand the power and allure of evil or the cold reality of how the world worked.


It is time for liberals to stop being tolerant of those who are intolerant of open society and who would seek to impose their homophobic, racist, eschatological madness on the rest of us.

Here's an interview with Chris Hedges from the CBC show The Hour.

|| Palmer, 8:30 AM

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