Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995

Look over your shoulder

Christopher Hitchens on the Oklahoma bombing and the Republican big tent

2499 words

‘You can read about neo-Nazis all the time in the New York Times,’ said a sardonic acquaintance of mine the other day, ‘as long as they are in Germany.’ And indeed, the existence of an all-American underground composed of paranoid fascist mutants was until recently considered a fit topic only for those who are themselves labelled paranoid. When Costa-Gavras made a film on the subject about ten years ago (Betrayed, starring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger) he was laughed to scorn by the mainstream critics, who diagnosed a bad case of Euro-Marxist condescension towards the nightmare side of the American dream. There were no big funds available to law-enforcement agencies to track down the violent Right, as there would have been if the targets were Libyans or Cubans or (best of all) ‘drug king-pins’. Every now and then, the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League or Morris Dees’s heroic Klanwatch outfit would issue a report, warning of the weed-like growth of ostensibly anti-tax militias who also sold Mein Kampf and inveighed against Zog, their sinister acronym for what they term the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’. I must confess that I used to ignore some of these reports myself. One pamphlet, put out by the ‘Aryan Nations’, had run a ‘wanted’ list of mugshots, exposing the real powers behind Zog. My own name appeared next to that of Norman Podhoretz. Momentarily chilling as it was to feel ‘wanted’ by these people (let alone to be gazetted with Podhoretz), the overwhelming impression was of crankiness cut with impotent, pitiable hatred.

No longer. The Oklahoma detonation has exposed the militarisation of a wing of the American Right, and could perhaps permanently alter the locus of the national debate. It has also made 19 April into a date of cultish significance. It was on 19 April 1992 that a supremacist guerrilla named Randy Weaver saw his wife and child shot dead during a shootout with Federal agents in Idaho. On 19 April 1994, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco – a leftover from the Untouchables of the Prohibition era, and a state militia that cries out for scrapping – broke every rule in the book and ignited the compound of wigged-out millennialists in Waco, Texas. On 19 April this year, a real charmer named Richard Wayne Snell was led to execution in Arkansas. He had boasted of murdering a Jewish storekeeper and a black policeman. Leaflets had gone out across the South, warning of reprisal if he was executed by the Zoggists. As Snell was being readied for the lethal injection, he snarled: ‘Look over your shoulder. Justice is coming.’ And then hours later the centre of bureaucratic Oklahoma, complete with subsidised day-care centre, tax records, criminal case evidence and the rest of it, vehicle registration and all, slid into the street with a tremendous roar. 19 April is also, in Massachusetts, a state holiday known as Lexington Day. It commemorates the militiamen of the American Revolution who ‘fired the shot heard round the world’.

There is a feeble insurgent pulse that beats at the heart of the bucolic fascist movement, and it is the same pulse that animated Daniel Shays, the Whisky Rebellion and some of the early populist movements. A man can’t brew his own booze no more, can’t hunt when he wants, can’t build an outhouse on his own land without filling forms into next week, can’t educate his children with the Good Book in one hand and a strap in the other. A man needs a permit to get married, to set a trap for a wild animal, to own a gun which the Constitution says he has a right to. He has to pay taxes and answer questions about his income, just so the shiftless can get their welfare checks. It’s a constant whine, like the endless bleating of white Rhodesian peasants reported by Doris Lessing and called by her ‘the conversation’. The country is going to the dawgs/to hell on a sled/to hell in a handcart. The pointy-heads and the desk-job white-collar drones are responsible. At different pitches and with different timbres, this refrain has been part of the Joe McCarthy movement, the George Wallace campaign and every Republican surge from Nixon to Gingrich. (But let’s not be too partisan about it; the rhetoric evolved from the days when the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern Democratic Party were each other’s official and provisional wings.) As Richard Hofstadter, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Theodor Adorno, in The Authoritarian Personality, have both taught us, this kind of American ‘populism’ has always been tainted by its kinship with racism and superstition, and by its servility to the very power it ostensibly rails against. It leads to Huey Long and Ross Perot, not to Walden.

This makes it very hard to guess how many people, on learning of the Oklahoma explosion, made a little holiday in their hearts. The question was, in any case, overtaken at once by the appalling images of death and mutilation, and by the competition to be first in the spin-control stakes. But if the Internal Revenue Service computer had been blown up with no loss of life, or if the same had happened to the Untouchables or the Interior Department, there would have been an audible growl of satisfaction. The Nazi David Duke, it doesn’t pay to forget, got a clear majority of the white vote in the gubernatorial race in Louisiana. And several of the new conservative intake of the Senate and House have made either electoral or political pacts with members of the militia movement.

Bill Clinton’s approval rating has climbed several points since his own intervention in this argument, and since I live in a city where the approval rating is god I feel almost profane in saying that I think he made a big mistake. Two big mistakes, actually. In his first set of remarks, he associated the bombing with the incendiary rhetoric of his tormentors on the talk-radio circuit; the ones who won’t let up on him and his wife and who insinuate that he murdered Vince Foster. Now, it is true that people like Rush Limbaugh and Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, the soldiers of fortune of the airwaves, have made observations that flirt with incitement. Limbaugh recently predicted a second and ‘violent’ American revolution in approving tones, and Liddy actually recommended the shooting of Federal agents if they came at you with guns. You would get the idea, listening to these jerks, that the United States was already (as Evelyn Waugh said about Britain under Labour in 1945) ‘an occupied country’. But the gun-freaks and white supremo types have been organising, and using deadly force, for longer than the right-wing bigmouths have had corporate sponsorship of the air. In June 1984, in fact, they murdered Alan Berg, an anti-fascist talk-show jockey in Colorado, who had taunted the Nazis on his own programme. It was the investigation of that slaying, which uncovered a ramified movement of well-armed Aryan bullies all across the Western states, that first alerted the FBI to a problem it has failed to keep in its sights – blind as they are in the right eye. (An excellent book on the phenomenon also resulted from the Berg case: Armed and Dangerous by James Coates.)

So, as well as being ahistorical in suggesting guilt by association, Clinton gave the conservative demagogues an excuse to change the subject. They began to talk in injured tones about American traditions of free speech and the First Amendment. And certainly, in his few known utterances, the gaunt and ghoulish-looking Mr McVeigh has not spoken of hearing voices from the ether. He has droned obscurely about animal rights, the purity of hunting and the wide open spaces. Indeed he does resemble, as William Burroughs once wrote of his own visage, ‘one of them sheep-killing dogs’. He and his kind hate the cities and the city-dwellers, especially those cities that have become sinks of immigration and race-mixing and alien religions.

Clinton’s second mistaken emphasis was the equally predictable one of law and order. He proposed greatly increased powers of search and seizure, even though FBI Director Louis Freeh testified publicly that the Bureau doesn’t need them, and then he and his useless Attorney General, Janet Reno, both rushed to say that the culprits, whoever they might be, would and should be executed. For some reason – perhaps for a good one – Democrats always sound unconvincing when they make jaw-jutting remarks about ‘toughness on crime’. Furthermore, they invariably come second in the auction of toughness that follows. Here again was a change of subject from which the Right could only benefit.

Newt Gingrich is leading a charmed life at the moment. Two of his newly elected ‘Republican Revolution’ colleagues, Helen Chenoweth of Iowa and Steve Stockman of Texas, have proud and open ties to the militia movement and have parroted its propaganda about the sinister New World Order. Two Republican Senators, Larry Craig of Idaho and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, have also shown a willingness to express the same ‘concerns’ as the Ultra-Right. Moreover, the largest single organised faction in the Republican Party today is the so-called Christian Coalition led by Pat Robertson. The key text of this movement, Robertson’s own tract on the New World Order, can be demonstrated to be a line-by-line plagiarism from classic European anti-semitism. In Robertson’s world view, it is the Warburg and Rothschild families, the Freemasons and the Illuminati, all over again. Yet nobody ever calls Gingrich on it; ever asks him, on the record, if these characters and these ideas are really part of the ‘big tent’ that is said to enclose Republicanism. A couple of cosmetic shifts have been made in the past few days. Senator Alfonse d’Amato of New York, a man best known for his free and easy business dealings and his unfunny racist imitations of Judge Lance Ito, incredibly broadcast live on a radio talk-show, has backed out of an evening intended to honour Gordon Liddy. But in general, that convicted Watergate criminal (who once expressed a willingness to kill people in the great cause of saving Richard Nixon’s face) is still a darling of the ‘movement’, as is the Iran-Contra criminal, Oliver North. Pensioners of the state and servants of power that they are, the pair make a weird sort of advertisement for the rugged frontier values they so hoarsely proclaim.

So the moment is slipping by in which political lessons are likely to be learned from the Oklahoma atrocity. Those who used the first days to call for the bombing of any old Ay-rab country have survived the embarrassment intact. (Rush Limbaugh said we should bomb the Middle East, starting with Gaddafi, ‘even if we don’t know exactly who did it’.) There have been no calls for ‘surgical strikes’ against the training camps in Idaho and Montana. Caliban doesn’t like looking in the glass. Meanwhile, the attempt to give Federal bureaucrats and their families a human face, as victims and survivors instead of anonymous pen-pushers, is insipid almost to the point of masochism. If the best the Democrats can do is to ask people to be grateful for all that the state does for them, then they will repeat exactly the condescending errors that cost them the Congress last fall and may lose them the White House next year.

So the language of therapy and recovery is kicking in, if anything so bland and superficial can be said to have any kick at all. The words ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ are never employed – perhaps from some exaggerated anxiety about political correctness – so the terms ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘anti-racist’ are likewise muted. Instead, we have trauma-management seminars, and the rebarbative spectacle of the Clintons at the White House, pictured with a flock of tots, and speaking earnestly about how children shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. I can picture a few wolfish smiles among the perpetrators at this response; not a bad return of respect and fear for the investment of one fertiliser bomb device. Tom Metzger of the ‘White Aryan Resistance’ went on radio to say that in any case, this being a war and all, there would be casualties. And if the Federal bureaucracy insisted on putting creches in their buildings, what did they expect? No mincing of words there. I once spent some quality time debating Mr Metzger on television, in the days when people to the left of centre could still get on screen. He wasted a lot of his airtime explaining why Jews weren’t white, and boasting of how his group had kicked to death an Ethiopian visitor to Seattle.

An especially irritating trope, invariably offered at times like this, is the stress on the ‘loss of American innocence’. I have at different times heard that this ‘innocence’ was lost in 1898, in 1917, in 1929, in 1945, in Vietnam, in Dealey Plaza and (Robert Redford’s most recent offering) at the time of the Quiz Show Scandals in the late Fifties. How desirable is innocence as a condition anyway? And how come it is so easy to regain, only to be ‘lost’ once more? How one yearns for just one moment that is not clotted with euphemism and sentimentality; one moment when someone in public life would call for a fight-back, and give these ostensibly ‘libertarian’ movements their right name.

For some grotesque reason, it’s been Yeats week in the Oval office. To close his solemn speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on 29 April, Clinton quoted Auden’s valediction to the poet: ‘In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountains start.’ The mere word ‘healing’, presumably discovered in a computer keyword search, had evidently been enough to recommend this otherwise completely inapposite verse. Then I got a call. ‘Hi. George Stephanopoulos thought you would know where that line about “the centre cannot hold” comes from ...’ As a result, I had the vaguely surreal experience of calling the White House and, George being absent, of reciting the first verse of ‘The Second Coming’ over the telephone. The secretary’s computer clacked oddly as I spelled and explained ‘gyre’, and picked up a bit more speed when we got to ‘things fall apart.’ The repetition of ‘loosed’ after ‘blood-dimmed tide’ gave some difficulty, and then with a sinking feeling I heard my own voice saying: ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’ If they pick that bit for the next speech, I realised, it’ll be partly my fault. So I gave especial stress to the lines about how the best lack all conviction, while the worst ... ‘Will he know what this is about?’ she inquired as if deploying all-American politeness on a slightly questionable but nonetheless registered voter. ‘Yes he will. It’s a poem he asked for.’ ‘A poem? Did you write it?’

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last ...

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Vol. 17 No. 12 · 22 June 1995

It was gratifying that Christopher Hitchens, a British journalist, knew that the citizens of Massachusetts celebrate our 19 April 1775 victory over British arms (LRB, 25 May). It would be excessive to expect him to have known that the holiday’s proper name is Patriots’ Day, not Lexington Day. This is no small point. Of the two major clashes of that day, we choose less to remember the events of the ‘Battle’of Lexington, as we misname the event. When Redcoats arrived at the Lexington green, they were greeted by a well-regulated militia performing close-order drills with their hunting muskets. Both sides swaggered at length on opposite sides of the green like the titmice later described by Konrad Lorenz, without defensive precaution and almost insensible of the danger of actual hostilities. On some putative provocation the Redcoats fired into the farmers’ ranks. The farmers (later ‘patriots’), astonished that their military affectations had been taken seriously, immediately scattered and ran all the way to Concord. By the time the British arrived at Concord, the era of military pretension was dead for ever. The farmers shot from behind trees and hedges, harassing the regulars with murderous effect all the way back to Boston. (When organised rebellion followed, almost no citizen of Concord volunteered for Washington’s army: the town used public funds to hire replacements to satisfy its conscription quota.)

These events’ relevance to latterday American militia is even greater than Hitchens suggested. Few Americans remember why the British left their comfortable barracks to visit the provinces on that day. Their mission was to search every farm and confiscate weapons. They were upset that the farmers had organised themselves into popular militia, which met weekly to flourish their guns and to rant about the tyranny of a distant and benign government. The militia had no offensive capabilities or any but rhetorical intentions. The modern analogue that comes to mind is the Black Panthers, who terrorised California by Scowling at state legislators while carrying legally registered rifles on their shoulders. The Concord militiamen, like the Black Panthers and the Waco miscreants, gained their influence solely by their unintended provocation of the government to ill-considered violence.

The Concord miltiamen had named themselves the Minutemen, boasting that they could make ready at one minute’s notice to resist any British incursion. In the Fifties a new militia named itself the Minutemen and took military training in anticipation of the Russian invasion and occupation of America that many ordinary citizens supposed might follow a surprise bomber attack. The national press reported their activities with the same respect accorded to the ubiquitous nuclear bomb shelters that boosted the construction industry in those days. I remember hearing favourable comment on those self-advertising weekend warriors from schoolteachers, relatives and scoutmasters. It may give us some cheer to note that supporters of American militia are no longer a clear majority.

Gun-control advocates like me prefer not to remember that, after suffering decades of English condescension with mere muttering and throwing of snowballs, American citizens rose to revolution only when the government attempted to confiscate the primal symbol of their self-regard – their guns.

Allen Andersson
Belmont, Massachusetts

Christopher Hitchens’s bit of yellow dog journalism in which he attempts to link the Republican Party with American neo-Nazis is nothing but reverse McCarthyism. David Duke is a total outcast in the Republican Party in Louisiana. Some state law makes it easy for anyone to run on a particular party’s line; sinister types have managed to do it as Democrats. As a delegate for George McGovern in the 1972 Democratic Convention, I can recall the vehement racism of the ‘Democrats’ who supported George Wallace, a candidate who won more popular votes in the primaries in 1972 than any other Democratic candidate, including McGovern.

Hitchens’s suggestion that Ross Perot is somehow a figure of the neo-Fascist Right is absurd. He supported the liberal Democrat Ann Richards against George Bush (the former President’s son) in the election for Governor of Texas. His lawyer, who is Jewish, is the husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Perot endowed a chair for Ginsburg’s husband at a prominent Washington DC law school. As for Huey Long, readers of the LRB should consult any number of excellent biographies for a more balanced view, particularly the Thompson biography. The King Fish. Huey Long was the only American politician who was serious about the redistribution of wealth, which earned him the fear and loathing of the white American Establishment and considerable support among blacks in Louisiana

With regard to the role of the FBI, Hitchens neglected to point out that in the raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho that led to the stand-off with Randy Weaver, the FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife Vicki while she was holding her child and did so as a result of a change in FBI policy implemented by Larry A. Potts, currently second-in-command of the organisation. The official explanation by the Director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, is that Potts had failed to read the change in the rules, which had been proposed by agents in the field. But the New York Times has reported that it was Potts himself who authorised the change: ‘Under the bureau’s lethal force rules, agents may use their weapons only if they reasonably perceive an imminent danger of serious bodily harm. But the rules were rewritten during the Ruby Ridge siege to authorise the shooting of any men seen near Mr Weaver’s cabin with weapons in their hands. One agent interviewed by the bureau after the stand-off said the change had been interpreted to mean: “if you see ’em, shoot ’em." ’ The FBI commander on the scene. Eugene Glenn, who is now special agent in charge of the bureau’s Salt Lake City office, has said that Mr Freeh’s review was a cover-up intended to protect Mr Potts and find lower-level scapegoats, and as the Times further reported, ‘indeed there is evidence that Mr Potts personally approved the change.’ Congressman Stockman has called for an investigation into the cover-up – which, in Hitchens’s book, seems to make him a neo-Nazi. Potts was given a mild reprimand and then promoted by Freeh, who assigned him to head up the Waco raid. It was Potts who urged Attorney General Reno to invade the compound and use lethal force. He was subsequently put in charge of the Oklahoma City investigation and then made Freeh’s deputy.

As for Pat Robertson’s New International Order, there is no mention in that pamphlet of any Jewish financiers. In criticising Nafta and Gatt, the pamphlet says that the only beneficiaries of those free trade agreements would be the international financial community. Hitchens is referring to Hitler’s attack on Jewish bankers and I call on him to give us the ‘line by line’plagiarism from Hitler that he alleges. By listing the Warburgs and the Rothschilds, names found nowhere in Robertson’s pamphlet, Hitchens would lead a reader to believe that Robertson has named these families, which is extremely misleading. When Harold Wilson referred to the gnomes of Zurich, no one in the Labour Party called him a Nazi. Robertson was referring to Citibank and others of this ilk, the business interests that care nothing for employment figures in the United States. Citibank itself has just fired all the union member employees who used to clean the bank’s buildings and replaced them with contractors who employ non-union workers at barely minimum wage standards with no benefits. If an international banking institution makes loans to American Industrialists so they can relocate to Mexico to benefit from the near slave labour one can obtain there, should this be beyond criticism? The products produced in Mexico on these terms are then imported to the United States with no tariff and cause increased American unemployment. This is the stuff that feeds the fires of extremism, as Hitchens should be aware. The fact is that Nafta is a disaster, as Ross Perot pointed out in his debate with Al Gore, in which Gore misstated I the actual economic facts of Mexico’s economic condition. I don’t believe Gore is a liar: he’s just ignorant. But the fact is that Perot was right. As for Gatt, the United States was in no economic shape to enter into such an agreement, which the Japanese are now going to invoke against the Clinton 100 per cent tariff on luxury cars from Japan.

A more serious analysis of the Republican Party and the American economic crisis is in order than the one Hitchens offers. As for the FBI itself, one wonders about its sincerity when it shies away from a serious investigation of right-wing extremists but manages to have the resources to spy on Act-Up, the gay activist anti-Aids group. We should certainly focus on the neo-Nazi threat in America, but we should be vigilant about a government that can promote the likes of Larry Potts.

Richard Cummings
Bridgehampton, New York

Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995

In his rather loopy defence of the new American populist and conservative fauna (Letters, 22 June) Richard Cummings defends Pat Robertson from the charge of anti-semitism and announces that, contrary to my claim, the names Warburg and Rothschild are ‘names found nowhere in Robertson’s pamphlet’. Let me refer him to the index of The New World Order (1991), which is now being passed from hand to hand by the Reverend Robertson’s audience. The entry for ‘Warburg, Paul’ reads ‘61, 65, 123, 124, 125, 178’ followed at once by ‘Warburgs, 126’. The Rothschild entry is not so voluminous but is in many ways more intriguing. ‘Rothschild, 123; Rothschild family, 123, 128; Rothschild, Lord, 111’, may seem colourless even if it leaves Mr Cummings looking – and dare I trust, feeling – a bit of a fool. More pregnant is the entry for ‘Rothschild publication, 7’. Anyone who turns up this page, or who is otherwise familiar with the work of the Rev., will find that ‘Rothschild publication’ is his term of choice for the London Economist. I rest my case.

In an exhaustive essay in the New York Review of Books, Michael Lind has shown the direct literary and political descent of Pat Robertson from classic anti-Jewish paranoids such as Nesta Webster. Given the venomous provenance of this world-view, I suppose it’s reassuring in a way that some of Robertson’s readers and followers are too dull to notice what he’s driving at.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

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