Darryl Pinckney

index on censorship

Menacing normality

From Index on Censorship issue 4/96

Darryl Pinckney

I use extremism as a political term. If you chose to become a Trappist monk, I might say that you were taking the religious life to an extreme, but I would see the choice as a matter of individual conscience. If you taught Madison Grant to your class, I would not fret that students were being exposed to a writer of extremist opinions, because it would depend on the context in which his work was understood, what he was taught for and taught as.

But if you thought that everyone must live as a Trappist, if you believed that certain tracts should be taught and not others, and if you committed yourself to realising these views through deliberate measures, then I would say that you had gone from being extreme to being an extremist. It is the element of coercion that defines extremism.

You have to make up your mind how you want to use a word like extremism in the United States because it will never acquire precision. Meaning becomes confused as soon as you begin to contemplate US history and its strains of idealism and ruthless pragmatism, the contradiction between the right to dissent and the urge to ensure a stable society, the distance between the national mythology and the actual events from which that mythology evolved. For instance, it doesn't mean much to describe the ethnocentrism of English settlers in Virginia in 1622 as an example of extremism, even though their cultural ideology justified such treachery as poisoning the leaders of the Powhatan confederacy during peace negotiations in order to weaken the armed resistance of the Indian tribes to settler encroachment on the land. Cultural ideology helped to drive the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century. As settlers pushed westward, Native Americans were killed or displaced. Though there is a debate as to whether this policy was genocidal in intent or effect or both, we don't label as extremist the elimination of Indian rivals, the attempt to obliterate a group deemed to be savages. Maybe we should.

Similarly, we don't think of slave holders as extremists, even though their cultural ideology cast blacks as inferior beings or denied their humanity altogether, because they conformed to the established social order of their day. We have a hard enough time admitting that our Founding Fathers were restrictive in their application of principals, even though we know that the Constitutional Convention determined, for purposes of taxation, that five slaves equalled three free white people, and that Native American tribes were regarded as foreign nations. We might boast that the original consensus prepared for extremism in political life, but not that it was, in itself, tainted by extremist feeling.

We don't condemn as extremist the exercise of power through elected bodies, however amoral or immoral their pursuit of political goals, because we take it for granted that such bodies have some legitimacy. In 1831 South Carolina legislators made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write, but the townspeople of Canterbury, Connecticut in 1832 seem more like extremists, because they burned down a private school rather than see a black girl educated alongside their daughters. We do not hesitate to brand the mob. It is our own loosely agreed upon standards of what is politically acceptable that are disappointed by the nineteenth-century torch thrower. What the distinction in these historical examples suggests is the relation of extremism to the mainstream - that is, we never think of extremism as mainstream. It is always something flipped out.

Thus, a defender of slavery like John C Calhoun is remembered as an extremist, but mostly because he became an ardent Secessionist. In his case Union sentiment functions as the mainstream he pitched himself to correct. If we wouldn't think of a slaveholder as being extremist, we would think of a defender of the Confederacy as being so - to the extent that he would continue to adhere to the ideology, deny that slavery had been abolished, uphold penal servitude, and seek revenge for the change in the social order. George Custer comes to mind, but we are reared on such romantic images of the South and its lost causes that his extremism as a Confederate general and Indian fighter is obscured by his glamour. Even so, we might feel that Custer had asked for his last stand, because he was on the brink of that time when people ought not to have gone in for Indian massacres. We settle unpleasant issues in our national past by saying that people were limited by their cultural moment, but we also have a schedule about when people ought to have known better.

Something about the movement of history, a perhaps overly determined idea of social progress, marks, in retrospect, certain times when people ought to have begun to know better concerning questions of social tolerance and political equality. Extremism, in this view, becomes a reaction, an allegiance to the outdated, the obsolete, an angry, false nostalgia, a hard, bitter refusal. That is why extremism always seems to be an offence of the right wing. Because as social beings we live with a sense of when the time has come in which people ought to know better, because we measure our national self in relation to our past national self, we do not put extremists of the left in the same category as extremists of the right. In fact, we don't call radical progressives in US history extremists at all.

Harriet Beecher Stowe as a Swedenborgian Christian was way out there, but because she was on the side of abolitionism we think of her as militant. We skip over the details of John Brown's bloody raid as one of the grim opening chapters of the Civil War, because he, too, was on abolition's side. Had John Brown been a forerunner of the white-hooded night riders, we would recall him as a stone cold extremist, not as a misguided leader of a doomed insurrection. If we think of the extremist as not part of the mainstream, we think of the militant as powerless. The Black Panthers of the 1960s were seen to threaten the established order by publicly announcing themselves as armed black men, but the power in the ensuing confrontations was always with the FBI and the local police forces. Militants we think of as having a point about injustice or oppression. Extremists we think of as having only a point of view. Militants don't have power, they have influence. The test is that militants can make you feel guilty, but extremists can't.

If you belong to the right wing, then your whole attitude to history is different. Whatever you claim to feel as a burning fire demands expression as an absolute in order to be convincing. This is the appeal of the Christian Right, that broad banner under which extremist souls in the US are now converging. The Christian Right appears to be in the tradition that allowed religious movements in the US to flourish, a tradition very much alive, which explains the depths of live-and-let-live sympathy for most contemporary cults and alternative churches, so long as they are not next door. But that tradition, begun before the mass migration of the European poor to the US in the second half of the nineteenth century, in which America is seemingly populated by every shade of Anabaptist, is too passive for the Christian Right. The American descendants of the 'Bolsheviks of the Reformation' had joined movements of renunciation. They wanted to come to the New World and then they wanted to be left alone. Not every cult is politically extremist and the feature of these cults is that they are closed and have a doctrine that you have to sign up to in a comprehensive way. Cult members have committed a kind of psychic suicide and are just trying to get through the rest of their lives. They are people who want less responsibility as citizens, not more. If you belong to the Christian Right, however, you would claim a tradition of religious liberty simply as an ennobling precedent for whatever it is you have up your sleeve.

The Christian Right is firmly in another American religious tradition, that of extremists as lovers of conformity. The Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony distrusted Anne Hutchinson's influence among worshippers and banished her in 1638. Mrs Hutchinson, the fanatical Calvinist, believed that God spoke directly to her and that she therefore obeyed a power greater than that of the ministers who cherished their civil authority more than they did their covenant with God, a civil authority that permitted them to burn witches and hang Quakers in the name of orthodoxy. Similarly, the Mormons met with suspicion up until Utah won statehood in 1890. After the church fathers had cleaned up their act enough for Washington's acceptance, they busily persecuted their own heretics. Today, the City on a Hill is no less a political capital and the Christian Right seems to be saying that all those who enter through these gates must be White Like Me. The Christian Right is a movement of resentment, which makes it available to extremist manipulation. What the Christian Right resents is not the tyranny of liberals in office or positions of cultural influence. Anyone with an honest recollection of the Vietnam War era knows that political correctness did not originate as a sin of the left. That was at a time when you were bullied by teachers and fellow students to pray and then to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. What the Christian Right resents is the intellectual prestige of certain liberal ideas, the moral and ethical persuasiveness of liberal social hopes. This would seem to include the provision in the US social contract that called for separation of church and state, the very article on which their unhindered existence depends. The libertarian rhetoric of the Christian Right is a cloaking device because the individualism they pretend to be protecting is conformist, anti-communal, especially now that there are some 650 mosques nation-wide and only one third of the followers of Islam in the US are African American.

This rhetoric becomes political in character through the effort to translate religious belief into civil law. Someone on the Christian Right doesn't believe that secularism has gone too far, he or she fears that change has gone too far. The US federal government is the agency responsible for the enforcement of, say, affirmative action regulations or, earlier, desegregation orders. That is why conservatives in the US are most often found in the ranks of states' rights proponents, because they can more effectively obstruct change on the local level, free of interfering directives form the Washington bureaucracy. The Christian Right is pro-individual and anti-central government in its rhetoric mostly because its followers feel that they have lost control of that government. That is why they assert that they represent majority feeling, which is itself a perversion, because the classic definition of democracy is not majority rule, but the protection of minorities.

Not every one on the Christian Right is also a member of the National Rifle Association, the Minutemen, or the Michigan Militia. They don't have to be. In the US the racist or the extremist is always depicted in film or on television as a grotesque, so that people sitting in the dark can reassure themselves that that isn't them. They file out dressed in the robes of the mainstream. But extremist groups share some of the frustrations of the Christian Right: were the federal government still committed to segregation, perhaps there would have been no separatists holed up in that Montana farm house. We think of the Ku Klux Klan as selecting isolated black sharecroppers as victims, when historically, they took aim at blacks who had done too well in business. Some of the recent arson attacks on black churches in the South may well prove to have been motivated more by land-grabbing greed than race hate, which has a racist component in that whites often demonstrate that if a black does too well then being white seems to lose something of its value. There is something of fear of being devalued as whites in the resentment of the Christian Right. They have their inadvertent allies, among them Farrakhan, who seeks to profit from a concept of blackness that is just as artificial and past its sell-by date as whiteness.

You get the feeling that after the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, the Christian Right decided that uncompromising fundamentalism worked as a strategy, that the theocratic mood could salvage the social construct of whiteness, in the way that anti-abortion activists on the Christian Right adopted the civil disobedience tactics of the Civil Rights era, except that no civil rights worker ever shot Bull Connor or any other sheriff who brought dogs to demonstrations, whereas pro-life extremists are not above gunning down doctors outside clinics. You get the feeling that the Christian Right would recognise the satisfaction in the Maoist slogan: 'The world is in chaos. Situation excellent.'

If the Christian Right did not reawaken the country's pride in its millenarian streak, it is basking in it. It is said that in the last days of the earth the pages of every copy of the Quran will go blank. No doubt the Bible will go on talking. A country deserves the extremists it gets.

Darryl Pinckney is author of a novel, High Cotton (Farrar, Strauss,1992), and writes for the New York Review of Books

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