On Rhetoric, Violence, and Militias


My feature in the October Reason, "The Paranoid Center," has prompted a response from the liberal blogger David Neiwert (whose book The Eliminationists was, in turn, critiqued in my article). He singles out two of my points for criticism, starting with my argument that "Accusing Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't so different from accusing pornography of validating rape, Ozzy Osbourne of validating teen suicide, or Marilyn Manson of validating school massacres." Writes Neiwert:

Actually, it is quite different from that. Because what The Eliminationists describes is not artistic expression or mere point of view, but rather ideological exhortation—rhetoric specifically intended to inspire both belief and action. The former has only a tenuous causal connection at best, while the latter has a long and well-established causal connection to violent behavior.

Surely Walker doesn't believe for a minute that radical anti-Israeli speech emanating from Hamas has no connection to the suicide bombers who board buses in Tel Aviv. It's hard to imagine anyone not acknowledging that radical Jihadist anti-American speech doesn't inspire Al Qaeda's acts of terrorism. Nor even that the Ku Klux Klan race baiters of the '20s and '30s didn't help inspire various acts of lynching and "race rioting".

Accusing Beck and O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't like connecting Marilyn Manson to Columbine—which is to say, connecting something that only tenuously could be said to actually inspire or advocate violence. It's much more like connecting radical imams to 9/11.

Neiwert is conflating several different categories of speech here. There are direct exhortations to violence, of the sort deployed by jihadists or by propaganda broadcasts in Rwanda. And then there's what we've seen in some right-wing (and left-wing) outlets here in America: jokes about violence, deliberately over-the-top rhetoric that casually invokes violence, and harsh rhetoric that does not invoke violence but might help the violently inclined choose a target. Whatever you think about any of that speech, it's a stretch to say it's "specifically intended to inspire both belief and action," if by action you mean actual violent attacks. It's even more of a stretch to suggest such speech inspired all of the crimes that pundits have attempted to link to it. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are not known for denouncing the Holocaust museum.

Just as important, Neiwert doesn't acknowledge all the ways speech can be received. He argues that when extremists see

someone like Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs repeating for a mass national audience things they believed were only understood by people like themselves, it has not only a powerfully validating effect, but even moreso a permission-giving one. Just as hate-crime perpetrators believe they are acting on the secret wishes of their larger communities, violent extremists have a need to believe that they are acting heroically, on behalf of their nation or their "people." Mainstream validation tells them they are supported.

This is one conceivable reaction such broadcasts could spark in such circles, but it is hardly the only one, and Neiwert offers no evidence that it is dominant or even common. Words are influential, but they influence different people in different ways; it would take a really extensive sociological study to establish whether talk radio and TV do more to fan Americans' violent instincts or to tamp them down. Whatever else might be said about Glenn Beck's "9-12 Project," for example, it could easily absorb energy that otherwise would go to more aggressive pursuits. Reihan Salam has gone so far as to argue that "Beck's occasionally loopy warnings about socialist totalitarianism and the coming American civil war actually inoculate his viewers against truly extreme sentiments. You couldn't invent a better government stooge than Beck." Salam notes that because Keith Olbermann was willing to explore the claim that the Republicans stole the election in Ohio in 2004, "true believers treated him as an honest broker. And when Olbermann eventually moved on, they did too, for the most part." Beck did something similar when he raised those dubious yarns about FEMA concentration camps before dismissing them.

My point isn't that Salam is necessarily right. It's that his hypothesis is as at least as plausible as Neiwert's, and that both could very well be true for different listeners and viewers, along with a host of other reactions. Media effects are complicated, and you can't reduce them to simple push-pull reactions. (And if that argument sounds familiar, it's because some of us have said the same thing when the speech in question is an Eminem record or Natural Born Killers.)

Neiwert also takes me to task for writing that he "uncritically embraced the idea that the militia movement began in 1992, so it's easy for him to imagine a progression from the old lynch mobs to the right-wing '80s underground to the '90s militias to Republicans who tolerate militia-style arguments." He replies:

I'm not sure what in the hell Walker is talking about here. Nowhere have I suggested that the militia movement began in 1992. And I haven't uncritically embraced anyone's theories about their origins. After all, I was there and reported on them at the time. I've been reporting on them since.

Walker seems oblivious to the fact that my first published book was a study of the "Patriot" movement of the 1990s from a Northwestern perspective, titled In God's Country. It was published by a small academic press, so I can't blame him if he hasn't read it. But a little research would have revealed to him that the book is based on my on-the-ground reportage involving the extremist right in the Northwest dating back to the 1970s and picking up in the early '90s….

What I can tell you is what I laid out in the book, with the full body of evidence: that the militias were actually an outgrowth of the larger "Christian Patriot" movement that became an umbrella term for the American extremist right in the mid-1980s. The militias were seen as a means to recruit new believers from the mainstream, by appealing to their "libertarian" ideals and their fears about guns and government power.

First things first: Elsewhere in the article I distinguish two origin stories for the militias of the '90s. One, presented by the historian Robert Churchill in To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face, says that the movement began to congeal in 1994 as a reaction to the one-two punch of Ruby Ridge and Waco—and, more broadly, to the paramilitarization of policing, a phenomenon Radley Balko writes about frequently in Reason. The other narrative says that the militias evolved directly from the racist right of the '80s, and that the turning point was a conference in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1992. Neiwert clearly accepts the idea that the militias were a direct sequel to the earlier radical right, and he has written elsewhere that the Estes Park conference played a pivotal role in the transformation (and has quoted, with apparent approval, an SPLC statement that the gathering was where "the contours of the militia movement were laid out"). If he doesn't think the word "began" captures his view of what happened, I accept the amendment: The belief I'm disputing, after all, is that the militias were not so much a new movement as a new mask for an earlier crusade. As Neiwert sums up the story, "They love to present a normative front that is non-threatening and whose deep radicalism is not immediately apparent. But eventually the real agenda emerges."

Neiwert will be happy to hear that I'm familiar with In God's Country. I have my disagreements with it, some of them substantial, but I think it's an impressive book: a rich, nuanced, and empathetic portrait of a political movement. But it isn't the militia movement that's being depicted—not as a whole, anyway. The book is a regional portrait of the "Christian Patriot" subculture in the inner northwest, a milieu that overlaps with the militias but by no means subsumes them. (A rough comparison: The New Left overlapped with the counterculture, but there were plenty of New Leftists who hated hippies and plenty of hippies who rejected left-wing politics.) Many, maybe most of the groups that Neiwert covered in detail weren't militias at all, and most of the ones that were militias hailed from the millennarian wing of the movement. (Churchill divides the militias into two tendencies, the constitutionalists and the millenarians. The former emphasized civil liberties and organized in public, while the latter emphasized apocalyptic conspiracy theories and often organized in secret cells. The second segment was also more likely to tolerate racists.) Furthermore, one of the militias that Neiwert profiles—the Militia of Montana—had unusually close links to the racist right. Its co-founder John Trochman was, as far as I'm aware, the one notable militia leader who reportedly attended that gathering in Estes Park (though he denies that he was there), and he has past associations with the white supremacist community.

In other words, Neiwert has shown us part of the picture, but not all of it. I too spoke with my share of militiamen and read my share of militia literature in the '90s, both as a reporter who occasionally covered that segment of society and as a libertarian bumping into the fringes of my own movement. The camo-clad rebels that I encountered were angry about gun control, land use regulations, and police abuses, particularly the disastrous ATF and FBI raids at Waco. (And, yes, they were often angry about an assortment of conspiracy theories, some of them deeply bizarre.) They showed no sign of being driven by racism or anti-Semitism; I'm pretty sure some of them were Jewish, and others attempted to build bridges to radical blacks. The impression I got from them was that the racists in the militia scene resembled the Maoist and Trotskyist sects that attempt to attach themselves to any remotely popular cause on the left.

I'm not claiming that my experience outweighs Neiwert's. I'm saying we were feeling different parts of the elephant. As a libertarian, I was more likely to meet militia types with a constitutionalist outlook, just as a journalist in the region where the Identity movement is strongest was more likely to meet militiamen in the Christian Patriot mold. I think Churchill makes a good case that the constitutionalists were a much stronger strain in the movement than Neiwert imagines.

A final thought. Suppose, for the same of argument, that Neiwert is right about the militias' origins—that they were invented by militant racists aiming to recruit mainstream Americans "by appealing to their 'libertarian' ideals and their fears about guns and government power." If that were true, the bigots' plot was surely a failure. Whatever its origins, the militia movement of the '90s had a life of its own, and the chief issues that commanded its attention didn't have anything to do with race. Indeed, its cause celebre was the confrontation at Waco, where roughly half of the 80 Branch Davidians killed were not white. (The body count included five Asians, six Hispanics, and 28 blacks.) To make one last '60s comparison: Students for a Democratic Society began as the youth arm of a far-from-militant band of social democrats called the League for Industrial Democracy. With time SDS exploded in both size and activity, breathing new life into several political perspectives—but not into the League, which embodied the Old Left the kids were rejecting.

Which brings the discussion full circle. You can't predict what autonomous audiences will do with the signals they receive: not an Ozzy Osbourne song, not a Glenn Beck broadcast, and not a call to form citizen militias.