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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Some Extended Thoughts on the Evolving Role of Race in American Extremism

I’ve written in the past about the nomenclature problem in the study and analysis of Al Qaeda – there are multiple inconsistent definitions competing in the media, academia and policy circles, and they aren’t consistent even within those circles.

So it should not surprise you to learn that similar issues apply when discussing other forms of extremism. I recently wrote a piece about the evolving role of race in the Patriot movement, which sparked a comment that it’s unreasonable to categorize ideological racists as part of the Patriot movement. On the other side of the spectrum, one reader questioned whether the Patriots were simply hiding their actual racist views. Neither comment is directly on the spot. 

There's some history which informs this discussion that simply could not be fit into the other piece, which already exceeded the word limit I was given. So I wanted to say a few words here about why I use the language I do, and why that language is changing to reflect current circumstances.

I am not sure exactly where and when the “Patriot” label originated, but by the early 1990s it was commonly used to self-describe by members of a radical but highly diverse movement that included wildly conflicting views on many aspects religion, race and politics.

The main thing that united them was a strong anti-government sentiment, based on the perceived victimization of Americans generally and certain demographic groups specifically, usually including some combination of whites, Christians and weird variations thereof, gun enthusiasts, libertarians, Constitutional literalists, and the unborn.

These groups obviously represented a lot of different ideas, some of which conflicted with other members of the movement, but they found themselves in casual and sometimes formal alliances predicated more or less on a passive expectation or an active desire to spark a new American revolution or civil war, the details of which varied depending on who you were talking to at the time.

This produced a series of memes which fueled the movement, many of which were most memorably articulated by white nationalist William Pierce, author of the infamous 1978 novel The Turner Diaries. These include a narrative that starts with a government crackdown on individual liberties and gun ownership, leading to an armed uprising using the tools of terrorism, and ending with or passing through a race war before America would be restored to its mythical glory days.

These key elements have continued as the primary tenets that unify the otherwise non-cohesive beliefs of members of the Patriot movement. But even from the start, the over-the-top racial hate and caricatures of The Turner Diaries presented problems.

 Some people who believed in the general narrative outlined above were not personally racist; others were not primarily racist, in the sense that race was not their main concern or the singular issue driving their discontent. Still others were simply smart enough to see that America was increasingly unreceptive to a racist message, and so downplayed the issue in the hopes of winning broader support. Timothy McVeigh, who was a dedicated adherent of The Turner Diaries, left a notable void in his public statements where race was concerned. He barely mentioned it, and on the few occasions he did, his language was remarkably muted for someone so enamored of such a wildly racist book. 

Despite these disconnects, the primary memes in the movement were popularized by The Turner Diaries and owe a debt to that book and its ideals, which can be seen in it the many, many efforts by other Patriot writers to write fictional dystopian futures that promote its main plot elements aside from race. 

During the early 1990s, groups that were not primarily racist nevertheless found common cause, shared members and generally worked closely with groups that were both primarily and ideologically racist, meaning that they had constructed elaborate structural or theological arguments to justify their racism.   

Since then, however, a sharp divide has evolved on the question of race and the Patriot label. Starting after the Oklahoma City bombing and continuing through today, people self-identifying as part of the Patriot movement have rebuked and rejected ideological racism. To be sure, there are still some racists in the movement, but their views are not ideological and they are not primary to the movement’s goals.

Out of some mix of principled objection and pragmatic understanding that most Americans are repelled by ideological racism, the Patriot and interrelated militia and sovereign citizen movements have explicitly rejected the concepts, terminology and orientation of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, with many barring their members from belonging to such organizations. Some have even tried to redefine the label of "racist" as a contrivance of their enemies, meant to falsely marginalize them. 

As I suggest in The Daily Beast article, this change in orientation is a process rather than a fait accompli. The Turner Diaries meme of an inevitable race war still holds powerful sway among the newer generation of Patriots, and while their publicly expressed views have moderated substantially since the 1990s, there is still little question that many mainstream Americans would take issue with their carefully parsed statements on this subject.

But at the same time, there is absolutely no question that a dramatic change has occurred and is continuing to move the Patriot and militia components of the radical right further and further from the ideological and overriding racism of its past. The sovereign citizen movement has gone further still in this direction, and now boasts a significant number of black adherents.

Returning to the question of nomenclature, the process of redefining the Patriot label started pretty early in the history of the movement and continues today. 

While the historical context is important, I would not refer to current organized and ideological racist movements as part of the current Patriot movement. The gap between them is wide and widening every day. But it’s useful and important to understand the history and recognize the process of separation as evolutionary and complex, rather than marking off a clean break and forgetting its origins.

To make an imperfect comparison, consider the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. The founders of Al Qaeda had relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and some were once members. Al Qaeda’s ideology finds significant support in the writings of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. But the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda have long gone their separate ways, and the current Al Qaeda hates the current Brotherhood passionately. It’s useful to understand their genetic, ideological and thematic relationships, but it’s foolish to say the two groups are the same thing.

The relationship between the Patriot movement and ideological racism has arguably arrived at that point. They have separated and the gulf between them is widening, but they share DNA. Understanding the history and evolution of that relationship is useful in understanding what each movement stands for today.  

Check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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