02 April 2010

How the left misunderstands the far right

It's the common opinion on the left that racism is the main (even if unacknowledged) driver of the apparently hysterical right-wing opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. On pretty much any comment thread (including some right here on my own blog) to a post about teabaggers, obstructionist Republicans, militias, fundamentalists, anti-gay hysteria, etc., one or more people will inevitably say "it's because they're racist" or "it's because they can't deal with the fact that we have a black President" or something similar. Almost never is any evidence cited to support this view; that's not felt to be necessary. It's asserted with the air of stating conventional wisdom, something that everybody already "knows". Even in a case like the Hutaree militia, with their endless talk of Christian warriors and fighting the Antichrist, a lot of people "know" that the underlying cause is racism.

I disagree. Racism is certainly there, and sometimes blatantly manifests itself, but I don't think it's the main problem. The main problem is religious fundamentalism.

Consider, for example, how the same array of right-wing forces would be reacting if Hillary had become President. I think it would be pretty much the same as what they're directing against Obama. Before Obama emerged as a big force in the Democratic primaries, when Hillary was the most prominent personality on the left, she was demonized in similar ways to how Obama now is -- and this was when even the prospect of her becoming President was a hazy possibility a couple of years in the future. If she actually were President, it would be worse.

It's hard to see how Repent Amarillo has anything to do with racism -- it looks more like Dominion Theology in action. The right's anti-gay and anti-abortion obsessions are solidly rooted in religion, and the same is true of the energy it puts into opposing the theory of evolution. The "Oath Keepers" actually reject racist elements. The bogeyman of Communism was always damned as "Godless", and even slavery and segregation and Jim Crow were routinely defended in Biblical terms.

There are some exceptions -- the histrionic fear and rage about health-care reform isn't obviously based on religion, for example, but it isn't obviously linked to racism either. More to the point, where did all these herds of agitated people acquire the impulse to firmly believe things which are so utterly contradicted by easily-available evidence? Another word for that kind of belief is "faith".

The problem is one I've written about before: The American left is overwhelmingly secular and has a lot of trouble understanding religion and the religious mentality. Confronted with a religious phenomenon, it tries to re-interpret that phenomenon in terms of something else which is more familiar -- taking religion not as the actual motivator but as a cover for something else.

This is why, for example, most American leftists don't understand Islamic terrorism -- they think in terms of historic grievances, colonialism, Israel, and so forth, and can't grasp or can't believe that the real roots of the problem lie in Islamic religious doctrines. (When 9/11 happened, I was horrified, but I wasn't surprised -- because Islam was my field of academic specialization, I know about its doctrines in detail, and I had been expecting for years that jihadists would eventually carry out such a major attack on us.) Atheist writer Sam Harris has pointed out the exact problem I'm talking about here:

Why would someone as conspicuously devoid of personal grievances or psychological dysfunction as Osama bin Laden -- who is neither poor, uneducated, delusional, nor a prior victim of Western aggression -- devote himself to cave-dwelling machina- tions with the intention of killing innumerable men, women, and children he has never met? The answer to this question is obvious -- if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been reluctant to accept this explanation? (The End of Faith, pp.28-29)

As Harris has also noted, American fundamentalists ironically understand the jihadists better than American leftists do, because their ways of thinking are more similar.

In the same way, leftists tend to re-interpret the Christian Right (and the whole scatter of phenomena mentioned above in the fourth paragraph) in terms of things like racism or economic factors, which are more familiar and which they're more comfor- table talking about. I think people from other Western countries, which lack any powerful home-grown equivalent to our Christian Right, tend to misinterpret our political scene the same way, for the same reason.

But just as with bin Laden, sometimes people actually do believe exactly what they say they believe, and that's that.

The hysteria of the far-right response to the 2008 election must be seen in light of the fact that the fundamentalists have been losing the culture war for years, and they know it. But as long as Bush and the party dominated by the Christian Right were in power, they had hope that the power of the state (and future Supreme Court appointments) would favor their cause. When that was swept away, defeat stared them in the face.

Racism is certainly there, but if Obama were white, we'd still be seeing basically the same range of reactions on the far right.


Blogger ZIRGAR said...

Amen! Every time a Democrat is elected the right wing, fundamentalists predict the end times are nigh and we as a nation must be vigilant against the evil hordes that are now on our holy shores, blah, blah, blah, and over the decades this has moved from the outer fringe toward the middle, mainstream of the GOP, and that's a huge part of why the right is so vehemently against Obama. It's a metaphysicxal battle between good and evil, as the religionists see it. Now, I've never asserted that disagreeing with Obama means racism, but certain aspects are racist, such as asserting he's not a US citizen, he's a Muslim and not a Christian, suggestions that he's trying to create reparations for blacks, etc. Those kind of things are racist, but they come from a deeper sense of white entitlement and an even deeper sense of religious fundamentalism. And all of these things are bound together, with the religious aspect the foundation for the rest of it.

02 April, 2010 04:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It's a metaphysicxal battle between good and evil, as the religionists see it.

Exactly so! This is why the opposition is so total and absolutist -- their thinking is apocalyptic, not political. An opposing political party that won an election can be legeitimate, but the enemies of God's will can never be.

The persistence of the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme is rather telling in this context, too.

Thanks for the comment.

02 April, 2010 04:26  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Ranch Style Greeting's Mr.Infidel!

Well .... I certainly dont have answer's .... but just wanted to tell you I thought this posting was "excellent"! Why? .... because it is posting's like this .... that make's one "think", and "that" is alway's healthy. Speaking for myself here only .... I personally believe that religion has been very destructive to all progress across the board, and outweigh's the positive that it's done by far. I'm somewhat of a "spiritual" man myself, but just never could stand religion's.

As far as racist qualities, well, I have them too I reckon .... I mean ... I want to tighten immigration .... I despise these rag headed middle easterner's who call our women whore's, and insult the way they dress. But at the same time I despise some of our corporation's and political rep's who just kiss up to them and sponsor hordes of them to come into this country annually. I see most of the small businesses in place's like South Central Dallas (that is 99% black American's probably) sell expired product's at over- inflated price's, and have had them talk right in front of me about all the fault's of Black American's, behind their back's, thinking I would accept it because I reckon, I'm white .... I had to enlighten a few .... and just tell them right out .... they dont know jack shit about Black America to make an assessment like that .... they wont even hire black's in many of their businesses, only their own .... also immigrant's .... because I have no regard whatsoever for these MF's .... I dont feel more worldly or liberated by embracing or understanding their culture, religion or whatever. At the same time .... I would NEVER go into their land's and tell them how to live, or try to exploit in any way their country or people, which is the reason why we are targeted so much in my opinion, although I would think you would disagree and most of your reader's. I also despise them coming into our country and telling us what the fuck were going to do to show respect .... these cocksucker's have no f'n respect for us, our children, our men or women, and even look at American men as pussies who cant control their women. I am sure many will tell me how "wrong" I am .... I really dont give a fuck. I have talked to many of them one on one .... not read this in some survey or book, this is my personal experience only. Maybe most of them love us by some survey or pie chart or whatever .... I frankly dont give a shit .... I dont like them or their fucken religion. As far as the left or the right ... I vote democrat because it's the best deal right now .... I could care less about the bitch fight's of either of them.Some may read this and say ...."what a redneck sob" they are absolutely right .... I am a redneck sob.

Thank You Sir .......

02 April, 2010 05:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: I want to tighten immigration .... I despise these rag headed middle easterner's who call our women whore's, and insult the way they dress.

Neither of those things is racist. Illegal immigration is an issue of people being in the country who have no right to be; I'm against any amnesty for illegal aliens, whether they come from Mexico or Scandinavia -- and Hispanic American citizens have exactly the same status and rights as any other American citizens. If you mean legal immigration, there's nothing racist about wanting to restrict it, unless one were to favor restricting it on an explicitly racial (as opposed to, say, cultural or religious) basis.

As for the Middle Easterners you mention, that behavior is due to religion, not race (most Middle Easterners are Caucasian, anyway). I would object to that behavior regardless of what the people who were doing it looked like.

Racism does exist and it's a serious problem. I simply don't believe it's the main driving force of the hysterics we're seeing on the far right these days.

02 April, 2010 06:08  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Actually I admired for year's alot of Persian Art for instance and the ancient civilisation's over there .... I just feel like Islam totally destroyed everything it once had.

02 April, 2010 06:19  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

The people of the Middle Eastern nations, historically, are very susceptible to fanatical types of religions. A lot of the world's trouble for centuries, has it's roots in religions founded there. The one thing they have in common is Monotheism, the Greeks and the Romans had flocks of Gods and so did the Celtic peoples of western Europe. So, over time, we have managed to chip away at all the Deities, hundreds down, one to go.

02 April, 2010 06:30  
Blogger ZIRGAR said...

metaphysicxal? Oh, my. I need to stop drinking so early in the morning...

And you don't need to thank me for the comment. I should thank you for posting such a reasonable and accurate analysis of what's really at issue between the right and left in this country, so thank you!

02 April, 2010 06:38  
Anonymous rita said...

From what I can observe here in this bastion of conservatism (or the "Bibles in the Belfry Belt") mostly by talking to the local conservative Christian folks is that they fear Obama and liberal Democrats, i.e, liberalism in general. They believe liberal goverments open the door to the political evils of Socialism, Communism & Marxism, which leads to the destruction of the economy,(ex:Obama Care) the loss of individual rights(ex:2nd Amendment rights), immorality(ex:Abortion rights) among other evils. They also don't believe liberals are as patriotic as they are (I'm not actually sure where that one comes from). The interesting factor is that the above political systems are perceived as Godless and immoral in themselves. Conservative Christians do not wish to separate politics from their religion. I don't believe their religious ideology actually allows for separation of Church and State. This is one reason they insist on their version of the "Godly" Constitution, & freak out over stupid stuff like this.
As far as racism... Since, racism is something people keep under the sheets, so to speak, it's hard to gauge how they really feel. Hardly anyone admits to being a racist, anyway.
I do agree with you, it is NOT the "main driving force of the hysterics we're seeing on the far right these days.

02 April, 2010 07:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC/HE: It is amazing how the Middle East, once the cradle of civilization, has declined since the onset of monotheism. It's too bad Alexander the Great's plan to Hellenize the Middle East did not succeed.

Zirgar: I do appreciate the kind words.

Rita: It's typical of the illogical religious mentality to claim to fear "loss of individual rights" while also wanting to ban abortion.

As for "destruction of the economy", I think we all know what the facts are.

Those coins look pretty nice. Too bad Congress made them move the motto off the edge where a quick bit of file work could have taken care of it.

02 April, 2010 08:22  
Blogger tnlib said...

Keep it up Infidel and you'll make me see the error of my ways - you and a few others.

The "Bibles in the Belfry Belt" (love that, Rita) have had a life-long impact on me I suppose. Maybe my conclusions haven't been based on scientific evidence as much as empirical evidence. That includes a wide spectrum of people I've met over the years growing up in God's country - then living in the West where thinking was generally on a not so narrow outlook and now back in the land of Bible thumpers.

It also includes a very large extended family who, for the most part, are died in the wool fundamentalists. They're also racist as hell - everyone of them.
So, maybe I do have a sort of knee-jerk reaction re racism.

But between your analysis and Rita's observation about a religious ideology that does not allow for separation of Church and State, well - I guess I'm re-evaluating my own stance.

Keep going. This is a thoughtful and well laid out argument.

RC: Mr. Gott Rocks, my ex, and I employed a housekeeper whose family had fled the German tyranny of WWII. Like so many - not all - people who escape this kind of tyranny in their own countries to come to a free land, turn right around and slam our minority, yet native, ethnic groups. I don't kn ow whether it's a need to feel superior or from a perceived threat. At any rate, this kind of thing is not limited to Middle Easterners.

02 April, 2010 09:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib: You're not alone in that experience (family full of fundamentalists).

My own family was neither religious nor racist, but it happens that over the years there have been several gay people I got to know very well, and I learned a lot about how they suffered from the prejudice against them. So I have a pretty strong visceral reaction when I run into anti-gay bigotry -- and of course that particular form of bigotry is fueled almost entirely by religion.

The story of your housekeeper also sounds rather familiar. All too many people who have been oppressed don't learn the lesson "oppression is bad", but rather the lesson "the wrong group is on top -- we should be the ones doing it".

02 April, 2010 10:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd say that religious fundamentalism, racism and then some (specifically, rules- and hierarchy-oriented, authoritarian approach to others and life in general) are part of the same mindset, Infidel.

Racism is hard to pinpoint, since, as Rita observed, nobody, apart from extreme knuckleheads, will own it these days. Religiosity in its most extreme forms, however, is still accepted -- nah, condoned -- in the US, so you'll see it more readily expressed. But, by and large (though not in all cases), it is part of the same mental package, I'd argue.

02 April, 2010 11:13  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

Good discussion. I would add the Corporate Media and most politicians are fully complicit in wrapping right wing political extremism in a cloak of religiosity. The Reich Wingers' politics are identical to a cult. It is an authoritarian belief system which incorporates Neo-Con Jews as well as Christian fundamentalists. Yes, a large share of them are racists, bigots, and homophobes, but they all drink the Corporatist Kool-Ade. The Bible and the flag are their wrappings of self-righteousness.

02 April, 2010 14:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Elizabeth: To an extent that may be true, but it's also true that some religous fanatics aren't particularly interested in race, and some racists aren't interested in religion.

DD: My point is that the religious fundamentalism is not a "cloak" or "wrappings" -- it's the actual substance. What you say may be true of the leaders, but I'm talking about the rank-and-file.

02 April, 2010 14:45  
Blogger Tim said...

Excellent Post!
You People said it all for me...

02 April, 2010 16:55  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

I tend to agree with Dave Dubya, in that the far right agenda is more than just the fundamentalism coming from within. As you said, "More to the point, where did all these herds of agitated people acquire the impulse to firmly believe things which are so utterly contradicted by easily-available evidence? Another word for that kind of belief is "faith"." -- and that's why it's so easy for the leaders to cultivate the peculiar mix of hatred that makes up the teabagger platform. There are marketing agencies who specialize in crafting a message that will cause these people to believe that health care for everyone is socialist and therefore godless and therefore wrong -- even though that's a bit of a stretch, especially considering the socioeconomic status of most of the followers. The agenda being put forth is in direct conflict with the best interests of the rank and file who follow it, but since they are accustomed to believing weird things without question, that's not all that difficult.

Which is why you have people who believe that god wants an unregulated free market without the burden of unionized labor to interfere with profit margins, right alongside their beliefs that gays are evil and schools should teach the bible alongside science.

It's absolutely true that the basis of the hate coming from within is religion, and the politics that come out of it are designed to embrace that base, but the end result is a bastardized combination of religion and corporatism. And yes, a little racism thrown in for good measure, in the guise of calling Obama a Muslim from Kenya (which they couldn't have gotten away with if Hillary had won).

And since the population who falls for the whole right wingnut package is far more concentrated in the South, the vague (or overt) racist overtones of Beck and Limbaugh is just another tool to use, just another source of fear.

And the irony of it all is that the people who would be put in power if this movement were to succeed are about as sincerely religious as a gob of navel lint -- they're a bunch of pill-popping, stripper-spanking, meth-snorting, gay-hooker-hiring, diaper-wearing, wide-stance hypocrites who can't be bothered to practice the family values they preach.

02 April, 2010 21:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tim: Thanks.

GL: And yes, a little racism thrown in for good measure, in the guise of calling Obama a Muslim from Kenya (which they couldn't have gotten away with if Hillary had won).

I think if Hillary were President, they'd have come up with something else -- presumably based on gender rather than race. Notice, though, how quick we are to re-brand the "Muslim" accusation as racist, even though in fact it's a claim that he's non-Christian -- a good example of the very syndrome I'm talking about in the posting.

And the irony of it all is that the people who would be put in power if this movement were to succeed are about as sincerely religious as a gob of navel lint -- they're a bunch of pill-popping, stripper-spanking, meth-snorting, gay-hooker-hiring, diaper-wearing, wide-stance hypocrites who can't be bothered to practice the family values they preach.

You make them sound like quite a passel of party animals -- too bad about the hypocrisy. I think hyposcrisy has always been a big part of religion, though. I'm not sure the amount of it we're seeing now is anything new -- more likely it's just that today's society and media are more likely to expose it and call them on it.

02 April, 2010 23:41  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

Well, yeah, that did make them sound a lot more fun than they really are.

But, Muslim is not just a religious thing when used as an accusation by frightened white people, most of whom can't tell the difference between a Mulim, a Sikh, a Syrian Christian, and an atheist Pakistani physics major -- it's those brown people. When ignorant people use that designation, they don't truly understand what it means, or that there are differences between people who have similar skin tones and foreign accents. They have been told Muslim = terrorist who hates our freedoms, and they don't bother to make fine distinctions beyond that.

I wasn't disagreeing with you that it's all rooted in religion, you know, it's just there are other factors all blended in to the teabagger message -- and racism helps by giving the South-will-rise-again folks another thing to identify with, which in turn helps get them parroting the pro-corporate message. Fist, appeal to the deepest fears, convince them you're on their side, then get them to go along with the other stuff you want from them. This is why you have your Obama witch doctor signs, your stuffed monkeys being waved at rallies, your monkey golf jokes at Family Values conferences, your watermelons-on-the-whitehouse-lawn cartoons being sent out to mailing lists. And, remeber "Barack the Magic Negro?"

It's a buffet-style platform, offering something for everyone with something to hate.

03 April, 2010 14:25  

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